*This is Arkansas' first true road game. The Razorbacks are 8-0 at home and 3-2 in neutral site games.
*The teams have not played a common opponent. But the Bulldogs have beaten a team from UA's state, Arkansas State; while the Razorbacks took a 77-35 home win over Southern Mississippi. The Dogs and Hogs will complete the in-season series March 1 at The Hump.
ABOUT THE RAZORBACKS: It's been some long winters up there in the hills, but at last their Razorbacks are back. Or at least they'd better be here in Stan Heath's fourth season. A veteran and explosive backcourt and maturing post play means the pressure is on to produce at last. So far, so good. Arkansas rolled through a quality non-conference schedule reasonably unscathed, scoring RPI wins over Missouri and Texas Tech while playing well in tournament losses to Connecticut and Maryland. Good, indeed. Four starters from an 18-12 (6-10 SEC) team, which ended a three-year losing string, is the obvious starting point, but as long as Ronnie Brewer came back this was going to be a contender. Now a junior the lanky off-guard is on-game, leading the SEC in scoring and getting his points either from long-range or attacking the goal directly as a nightmare defensive matchup. It only seems that his backcourt mates, starter Jonathan Modica and sub Eric Ferguson, must be enrolled in doctorate programs by now; they were part of Heath's first team, know all there is to know about this league, and can put up double-digits any night needed. There are two more names in the backcourt rotation to watch; second-year senior Dontell Jefferson has emerged as one of the SEC's leading playmakers with six assists per game feeding those shooters. And rookie Sean McCurdy is been gradually groomed as the point guard of the future. Of course outside scoring hasn't been a problem at Arkansas for years. Play in the paint has been the challenge, particularly on offense. A year's development has helped 6-10 forward Darian Townes answer most questions there with 11 points and 53% shooting putting balance in the gameplan. He's only started five games but gets steady minutes and makes the most of them. Jacksonian Charles Thomas is his counterpart, a bruiser on the boards and opportunistic scorer. And while starting center Steven Hill's scoring and boarding stats aren't much, his 37 blocked shots shows what impact the 7-0 soph has. The Razorbacks have 95 collective swats already, but their real damage on D comes on steals. Brewer has picked 43 balls and Jefferson 24 more, stopping opponents before they can even get into a set. By contrast UA's assist/turnover rate is strongly positive. And this is not a team to send to the foul line, either. If there is anything Arkansas hasn't done well, yet, it is control the backboards as rebounding is barely above break-even. But they do most other things well, and more to the point this has become a cohesive club with deserved confidence. After the down years, Arkansas is ready to make a run at the SEC West again while their fans happily plan for their first post-season trip since 2001. And if this squad keeps up the current pace it could be a lengthy trip, too.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
ARKANSAS: PG Dontell Jefferson, SR, 6-5 181, 5.8ppg, 5.9apg; G Jonathan Modica, SR, 6-5 208, 13.8ppg, 4.2rpg, 20 3ptrs; C Steven Hill, SO, 7-0 248, 2.7ppg, 3.7rpg, 37 blocks; G/F Ronnie Brewer, JR, 6-7 217, 18.3ppg, 3.6rpg, 21 3ptrs; F Charles Thomas, SO, 6-8 245, 8.9ppg, 4.2rpg.
Top Reserves: F/C Darian Townes, SO, 6-10 255, 11.2ppg, 6.6rpg, 28 blocks; G Eric Ferguson, SR, 6-1 200, 7.0ppg, 11 3ptrs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: PG Richard Delk, FR, 6-4 170, 3.7ppg, 1.7apg; 2G Reggie Delk, FR, 6-4 170, 8.5ppg, 2.0rpg, 21 3ptrs; C Wesley Morgan, SR, 7-2 240, 6.2ppg, 8.1rpg, 19 blks; PF Charles Rhodes, SO 6-8 240, 9.4ppg, 5.8rpg; SF Jamont Gordon, FR, 6-4 225, 13.6ppg, 5.5rpg, 13 3ptrs.
Top Reserves: G Dietric Slater, JR, 6-3 200, 10.2ppg, 3.3rpg; F/C Walter Sharpe, SO, 6-9 235, 10.3ppg, 5.0rpg; F Piotr Stelmach, JR, 6-9 240, 6.2ppg, 4.5rpg; G Jamall Edmondson, SR 5-9 190, 14.5ppg, 27 asts, 24 3ptrs.
BY THE NUMBERS:
Average Points: MSU 72.0ppg, ARK 75.3ppg
Scoring Margin: MSU +6.4, ARK +13.9
Field Goal %: MSU 45.7%, ARK 47.1%
Field Goal Defense: MSU 37.6%, ARK 40.1%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 31.4% (75/239), ARK 34.6% (71/205)
Rebounding Average: MSU 40.7rpg, ARK 34.8rpg
Rebounds Margin: MSU +5.2, ARK +1.4
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 66.8%, ARK 68.4%
Average Turnovers: MSU 18.0tpg, ARK 14.5
THE SERIES: Arkansas owns a 22-16 lead in a series that goes back to 1952, but only became annual (twice-annual at that) when the Razorbacks joined the SEC for 1991-92. It was a 5-4 count favoring UA prior to league meetings; since then Arkansas has stretched their lead by winning 14 of the first 19 SEC games, including a seven-game streak from 1998-2000. But the Bulldogs have made up a lot of ground lately by winning six of the last seven meetings including four-straight. Arkansas hasn't won in Starkville since 2000 with a 12-5 State edge on campus. Rick Stansbury is 7-8 against UA, while Stan Heath is 1-5 against State.
BULLDOG NOTES: Mississippi State achieved double-digit victories prior to SEC play for the fourth-straight season, and the fifth year out of the last seven. And Rick Stansbury raised his record in the month of December to 50-9 in eight years; with a 24-1 mark at home for the month. He is 84-16 in all fall semester play.
*State has used five starting lineups through 13 games, and never put the same five oncourt for tip-off more than four consecutive games. That was also the first four games of the schedule. With senior PG Jamall Edmondson doubtful for this weekend, Stansbury will likely go with the same group that opened on Dec. 30 against George Mason. SF Jamont Gordon and C Wesley Morgan are the only Dogs who have started all 13 games.
*Gordon has made an instant impression on both his team and the SEC, as the rookie has twice been named Freshman of the Week already. He currently has the highest scoring average of any SEC freshman, but his contributions run the gamut for State as he is the fourth-best SEC rookie on the boards. On December 10 Gordon needed just one more assist to record only the second ‘triple-double' in MSU history.
*At 13.6 points, Gordon is having a great rookie year. But he's far off the MSU scoring record for freshmen set by Rickey Brown in 1977 of 19.3 points.
*Sophomore forward Charles Rhodes has started seven-straight games now. He bounced back from two quiet games in Puerto Rico to get ten points in the GMU game, and missed a double-double by one rebound. The 6-8 soph continues to lead his team in foul-shooting accuracy at 85.7%. Only once has he missed more than one free throw in a game, that against Liberty.
*While Rhodes leads in accuracy at the stripe, Gordon draws more fouls and thus is averaging the most attempts (5.7) and makes (4.0) per game.
*Senior center Wesley Morgan has 19 blocked shots in 13 games. That might not impress many SEC foes, but it's a great early pace by recent MSU standards. In five of the last six years State's leading swatter had notched between 20 and 32 blocks; Branden Vincent was the exception with 40 in 2004-05. Whole MSU teams lately have failed to match the record 109 blocks by Erick Dampier in 1996.
*The Bulldogs might not be great at the arc but they are consistent. They went into the GMU game averaging 33.3% in the previous three games, and went 6-of-18 against the Patriots. That is still better than their overall season rate. Ironically, they set a school record by hitting 14 treys in the overtime win over Santa Clara, which made their arc-ability look better.
*After relying extensively, and at times exclusively, on zone defenses in the first ten games due to depth issues, State has been able to play more man-to-man in recent outings. Either way the Bulldogs have put up (or from the opponents' viewpoint, put down) good defensive numbers. They still rank first in SEC shooting defense (and 13th in the NCAA stats) and held George Mason to 61 points in the last time out. Contrary to public impression this team does defend the arc almost as well, ranking second in the SEC in three-point defense.
*State also stands second in SEC rebounding, both boards-per-game and margin. Good, but not what the program is used to after leading the league in rebounding for an unprecedented five-straight seasons. The Dogs will have to really hit the boards to six-peat, though, as league-leading LSU goes into conference play with a rebound margin of 13-plus.