*State and Liberty are paired in the half-bracket with Akron and Mount Saint Mary's, who are scheduled for a 3:00 gametime. The winners will meet Tuesday at 5:00; the losers play at 3:00. The other half-bracket has Clemson and Puerto Rico-Mayaguez opening the day at 11:00am, with Holy Cross and Chattanooga playing next. All teams will play three games; Wednesday's schedule is for an 11:00am 7th-place match and 1:00 consolation-round playoff, then a 3:00 game for third place overall and 5:00 championship.
*The teams have one common opponent on the schedule. Liberty has already lost a 81-51 decision to Kentucky, whom State meets on February 1. And in the tourney field, MSU defeated Chattanooga 64-48 in Starkville for the Bulldog season-opener on November 19.
*This is MSU's third trip to Puerto Rico. In 1992-93 the Bulldogs finished third in the eight-team field, defeating Florida International, losing to Southern Illinois, and beating Eastern Michigan. In 1996-97 State came in fifth with an opening loss to Bowling Green, win over Fresno State, and overtime defeat to Old Dominion.
*Liberty has not played since a home loss to Buffalo on December 10, taking a long break for final fall exams. The Flames are 0-4 in road games.
ABOUT THE FLAMES: It's a rebuilding year for the Flames, who had a most interesting 2004-05 year by posting only a 13-15 overall record but finishing second in the Big South at 11-5. That wasn't quite enough to get a postseason bid, though, and only one starter and four other lettermen are back to start over. Coach Randy Dunton (56-62 in four seasons) knows something about fresh starts, as in his first season he turned a 5-25 squad into a 14-15 team, and in the next year went 12-4 to win the school's first conference championship. Now he is putting another lineup together around a backcourt veteran, Larry Blair, who paced the team in scoring last year at 16.5 points. This season after seven games the junior guard practically is the LU offense, averaging 20.9 points on 44% shooting. He has led Liberty in scoring all seven games and owns 14 of the team's 35 treys, which says a lot for Blair and a lot more about the squad. Another good example is how Blair's 30-point effort against Buffalo, which pushed him over 1,000 career points, came in a 66-53 loss. That fact reflects that the other four top scorers of 2004-05 are gone. The next-highest returning contributor, guard Evan Risher, is in the starting lineup about half the time with swingman Eric Bigdy getting the other tipoff jobs if LU wants to try a larger lineup. The younger guys who are stepping up this year are on the front line. Center Russell Monroe and forward Damien Hubbard combine for a dozen points, while forward Rell Porter has been a boost on the boards that Liberty badly needed. Meanwhile guard Anthony Smith has gotten off to a good beginning, ranking fourth in team scoring so far and earning Big South ‘freshman of the week' in November. Only Blair and Hubbard have had to average over 30 minutes and Dunton seems to have a rotation set up. But with all the newer faces in tough places, the Flames have flickered more than burned so far. Shooting has been erratic at best, the assist/turnover rate tilts the wrong way, and defensively Liberty gets picked on from the perimeter quite a bit. The free throw accuracy is unusually poor even for early-season. And no team that gets consistently beat on the backboards can be looking forward to playing a Bulldog program that specializes in cleaning the glass. Maybe Liberty again is looking to just get through the non-conference schedule and take another shot at a strong spring semester in the Big South.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
LIBERTY: G Larry Blair, JR, 6-1 185, 20.9ppg, 4.0apg, 14 3ptrs; G Evan Risher, SO, 6-0 185, 5.9ppg, 2.0rpg, 7 3ptrs; C Russell Monroe, SO, 6-11, 235, 7.1ppg, 4.3rpg; F Damien Hubbard, JR, 6-6, 205, 9.0ppg, 5.6rpg; F Rell Porter, SO, 6-7, 195, 4.1ppg, 6.7rpg.
Top Reserves: F Eric Bigdy, JR, 6-6, 190, 5.1ppg, 3.1rpg; G Anthony Smith, FR, 6-4, 185, 6.7ppg, 7 3ptrs; C Jeremy Eck, JR, 6-9 235, 3.5ppg, 1.3rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: G Jamall Edmondson, SR 5-9 190, 15.1ppg, 24 asts, 19 3ptrs; G Reggie Delk, FR, 6-4 170, 7.4ppg, 2.6rpg, 13 3ptrs; C Wesley Morgan, SR, 7-2 240, 6.6ppg, 9.3rpg; F Charles Rhodes, SO 6-8 240, 10.6ppg, 6.3rpg; F Jamont Gordon, FR, 6-4 225, 13.1ppg, 6.2rpg, 9 3ptrs.
Top Reserves: G Richard Delk, FR, 6-4 170, 7.5ppg, 2.0apg; G Dietric Slater, JR, 6-3 200, 11.5ppg, 4.2rpg; F Piotr Stelmach, JR, 6-9 240, 6.6ppg, 5.3rpg; F/C Walter Sharpe, SO, 6-9 235, 10.0ppg, 8.0rpg.
BY THE NUMBERS:
Average Points: MSU 71.9, LU 65.3ppg
Scoring Margin: MSU + 8.9, LU –5.6
Field Goal %: MSU 44.7%, LU 42.9%
Field Goal Defense: MSU 35.2%, 42.0%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 30.7% (54/176), LU 30.8% (36/117)
Rebounding Average: MSU 44.8, LU 34.4
Rebounds Margin: MSU +7.7, LU –4.9
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 66.2%, LU 61.7%
Average Turnovers: MSU 19.2, LU 17.7
THE SERIES: This is Mississippi State's first meeting with Liberty. Nor have the Bulldogs ever faced Mount St. Mary's (from Maryland), Akron, Holy Cross, or PR-Mayaguez. State has only played Clemson once, losing in 1981 in Houston, Texas. And counting this year's win, State is 6-4 against Chattanooga.
BULLDOG NOTES: Due to early-season injuries and ineligibility State has used four starting lineups through nine games. Only G/F Jamont Gordon and C Wesley Morgan have started all nine. The last change was forced when eight-game starter PG Jamall Edmondson missed the Jacksonville State game with a hamstring. His place was taken by freshman Richard Delk in his first college start, and only his second MSU game after missing six with a foot problem. PF Charles Rhodes has started four of eight games played, 2G Reggie Delk five of nine. Eight Dogs in all have at least one start already.
*Gordon missed by one assist in the Troy game becoming only the second Bulldog to record a triple-double, when he tallied 17 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists in 38 minutes. He would have joined Lawrence Roberts, who did the trick last season, as Dogs with that unique achievement.
*Rhodes' 24-point effort against JSU made him the first frontcourt Bulldog to lead the team in scoring this season. Previously Gordon had been top scorer four times, Edmondson three (they tied in one game) and G Dietric Slater twice.
*Rhodes, who made nine of 12 free throw tries as a freshman, is off to a superb sophomore start at the foul line. He is 25-of-28 so far, having hit a perfect 10-for-10 against Jacksonville State.
*State had a dozen dunks in their last game, five of them by Rhodes who accounts for 14 of the team's 32 total slams.
*Mississippi State had only 18 three-point baskets through the first five games, and was shooting under 22% from the arc. Through the last four contests the Bulldogs are 36-of-93, which is 38.7%, and the 14 made-treys against Santa Clara were a program record.
*But opposing teams are firing freely from long range over the Dog defense, putting up an average of 28 trey-tries per game. Fortunately they are converting on only 29% of these and making eight per game.
*The lineup is all-new for this season, but one trend from recent Bulldog teams is continuing. State continues to hit the boards hard, averaging 44.8 rebounds. State has led the league in rebound average for the past five years, the first program in 73 SEC seasons to do so.
*Only one opponent has shot better than 40% against this Bulldog defense, when Northwestern State hit 45% in a win. The other eight foes all came in under 38% from the field, most recently the 35% by Jacksonville State. That keeps the Bulldogs in first place in the SEC in scoring and shooting defense.
*A downside of this new lineup is few ‘career' stats worth recognizing. Emondson is the only Dog over 200 points in his MSU tenure, with 273 in 40 games. He hated missing the last game because in the previous three the senior had scored 26, 19, and 17 points.
*Senior Morgan is making the most of his first season as a starter, with three double-doubles already and four games with double-digit rebounds. Morgan has 84 boards so far this season, after notching 72 rebounds in the previous three seasons.
*Junior Slater just went over 100 career rebounds, with 105.
*So far the Bulldogs have finished one game, against Santa Clara, with more assists than turnovers.