*MSU has posted winning records against the SEC East in three of the last four seasons. But the Dogs are now 0-2 in inter-Division play after road losses to Florida and Vanderbilt.
*The teams have played two common opponents, both SEC matchups. Both have lost to LSU, though State did it 71-57 at home while the Vols fell 88-74 on the road. But while the Dogs were beaten 75-60 at Florida, the Vols claimed a 80-76 home win over the #2-ranked Gators.
*Tennessee is 2-1 in true road games, with wins at Texas and South Carolina.
ABOUT THE VOLUNTEERS: Is this a result of time, or timing? A lot of both, probably, as the combination of a matured lineup and a fresh gameplan have combined to bring Tennessee back into the spotlight. Sure, Bruce Pearl inherited a pack of proven personnel…but for how many years did his predecessors get, as the saying goes, less out of more than anyone in the league? This new boss has turned the existing talent (the two eligible freshmen are barely seeing the court) into a cohesive team, and the December thrashing of Texas alerted all that there's a new gang to contend with in the East. The Vols are also showing resilience, bouncing off tough setbacks at LSU and Memphis to outlast visiting Florida in the league game-of-the-year-so-far. There's no secret to the UT approach: shoot early and often, defend end-to-end, and let the rebounds ricochet where they may. This is (no pun intended) largely due to the smallish lineup that ranks last in the SEC in rebound margin and 11th in blocks. The inside presence is provided by workhorse Major Wingate, who can certainly hold his ground with typical SEC postmen and gets his share of putbacks. And senior Andre Patterson comes off the bench to provide about as many points with even better board-work. So don't think UT is a pushover in the paint. Still this is clearly a guard-dominated attack, and would be in any case with marksmen like Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson roaming the floor. Soph Lofton leads his team in scoring (4th-best SEC) and paces the whole league with 55 treys already, and it's no coincidence that he's been the top point-provider in most of the team's big wins so far. Senior Watson is his ideal partner, a veteran who can both get him the ball in shooting positions or score it himself with nearly the same frequency. Watson is 7th in SEC average, hands out over four assists a night, and owns 24 treys. And in case anyone thinks these are just a couple of gunners, the pair are tied for 2nd in SEC steal-average this week. They're listed as ‘forwards' but for all practical purposes Stanley Asumnu and Dane Bradshaw are still guards. In fact Bradshaw has been converted from point guard to power forward and at 6-4 ranks 14th in SEC rebounding. Yet the juniors hasn't lost any old skils as he is 7th in SEC assists and has the best assist/turnover ratio of anyone in the league! Some teams talk about set rotations, Tennessee takes it seriously with seven Vols getting practically all the action. That certainly says something about their conditioning, as this team forces the pace in both directions. As evidence, UT is first in both taking and making three-point shots but also tops the conference in stealing the ball by a sizable margin. And for a break-neck type of team there isn't a lot of trouble with turnovers. Yet at the same time the Vols are last in some other stats, such as scoring defense, shooting defense, and three-point defense. In other words if the opposition doesn't turn the ball over they should have a reasonable ‘shot' at scoring on Tennessee. And know what? The Vols are entirely comfortable playing things this way. As the record shows so far they're usually able to just outscore the other side anyway. No wonder Tennessee is (again, N.P.I.) fast becoming the new darling of league-watchers, and barring any collapse on track to return to NCAA action after a four-year absence.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
TENNESSEE: G Chris Lofton, SO, 6-2 197, 16.5ppg, 3.5rpg, 55 3ptrs; G C.J. Watson, SR, 6-2 175, 15.9ppg, 4.2apg, 24 3ptrs; C Major Wingate, JR, 6-10 250, 11.5ppg, 3.9rpg, 16 blks; F Stanley Asumnu, SR, 6-5 215, 9.0ppg, 3.1rpg; G/F Dane Bradshaw, JR, 6-4 200, 7.5ppg, 6.3rpg, 10 3ptrs.
Top Reserves: F Andre Patterson, SR, 6-7 217, 9.7ppg, 5.6rpg; G JaJuan Smith, SO, 6-2 190, 8.5ppg, 2.5rpg, 28 3ptrs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: PG Jamall Edmondson, SR, 5-9 190, 13.1ppg, 2.1apg, 27 2ptrs; 2G Dietric Slater, JR, 6-3 200, 9.7ppg, 3.5rpg; C Wesley Morgan, SR, 7-2 240, 5.3ppg, 6.8rpg, 30 blks; PF Charles Rhodes, SO 6-8 240, 11.8ppg, 6.4rpg, 16 blks; G/F Jamont Gordon, FR, 6-4 225, 13.2ppg, 6.4rpg, 17 3ptrs.
Top Reserves: 2G Reginald Delk, FR, 6-4 170, 7.8ppg, 1.9rpg, 29 3ptrs; PG Richard Delk, FR, 6-4 170, 2.6ppg, 1.0apg; PF Piotr Stelmach, JR, 6-9 240, 5.1ppg, 3.9rpg, C Vernon Goodridge, FR, 6-9 220, 2.3ppg, 2.0rpg.
BY THE NUMBERS:
Average Points: MSU 68.8ppg, UT 83.3ppg
Scoring Margin: MSU +1.0, UT +9.3
Field Goal %: MSU 44.8%, UT 46.6%
Field Goal Defense: MSU 40.0%, UT 47.4%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 30.8% (94/305), UT 39.8% (129/324)
Rebounding Average: MSU 39.6rpg, UT 33.5rpg
Rebounds Margin: MSU +5.0, UT –3.9
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 65.9%, UT 68.8%
Average Turnovers: MSU 18.3, UT 12.3
Turnover Margin: MSU –3.2, UT +8.1
THE SERIES: The Dogs and Vols met first in 1924—three times that year, in fact, with a home-and-home set and collision in the old SIAA tournament. But the series didn't resume until 1938 and under the young SEC's banner. Tennessee dominated the first decade, at one point winning 17-straight games from 1939-49, and since then the Vols have expanded their lead to 70-38. State has had things somewhat better over the last 15 years by winning 11 of 19 games including four-straight victories in 1994-96. The Dogs are 26-23 in games played in Starkville with wins in 2002 and '04, while the Vols have taken three-straight in Knoxville. Tennessee is also 6-2 in games played in the SEC Tournament. Rick Stansbury is 4-4 against Tennessee, while this is Bruce Pearl's first game against State.
BULLDOG NOTES: Through 18 games Mississippi State has used six starting lineups. In their most recent outing the Dogs also went back to one of those, putting senior Jamall Edmondson at point in his first start since Dec. 21. That was also the only previous game for this latest lineup of Edmondson, 2G Dietric Slater, SF Jamont Gordon, PF Charles Rhodes, and C Wesley Morgan. Before that Vanderbilt grouping, Gordon had started three games at point guard with freshman Reginald Delk as a third guard in the lineup. The most starts for any fivesome so far is four, to open the season, when junior Piotr Stelmach was at power forward before Rhodes' promotion. Gordon and Morgan are the only Dogs to start all 18 games.
*Gordon had his six-game stretch of scoring in double-digits snapped at Nashville with just five points against Vanderbilt. That dropped his rookie-year average to 13.2 points, which is still second-best among all SEC freshmen. And he's scored 10 or better in 14 of his 18 games. Gordon still hit the boards hard, though, with six rebounds. This was right after the 6-4 frosh pulled down 13 rebounds against LSU.
*Gordon is still well on a pace to be the first MSU freshman perimeter player (guard or small forward) to average double-figures since Jeff Malone in 1980 at 11.9. The school record for a backcourt rookie was set by Ray White with 18.3 in 1976. And the record for all freshman was the 19.3 by center Rickey Brown in 1976-77.
*Sophomore PF Charles Rhodes has muscled into the SEC's paint-picture with two impressive weeks. In all his five league games Rhodes has scored in double-figures and averaged 17.4 points, and he's shot a rousing 61.4% in the process. On the boards Rhodes has been just as stout, grabbing 38 rebounds in league play (7.6 per game) and raising his season average to 6.4. In one stretch Rhodes just missed notching double-doubles four times with nine rebounds in those contests.
*Rhodes has also shaken off a mini-slump at the foul line. He began the season making 36 of his first 42 free throw attempts, then went 5-of-10 in a couple of games. Rhodes came back to make 6-of-8 at Oxford and 7-of-9 at Vanderbilt (he had no attempts vs. LSU). His season average is back up to 76.8%.
*Edmondson, sidelined three weeks and three games by a hamstring problem, is back on the court and making up for lost time. After putting in 22 and 29 minutes in two games off the bench he played 26 minutes as a starter at Vanderbilt. Gordon still tops the roster in game minutes at 32.8 overall and 33.6 in SEC action.
*Reginald Delk is clinging to his team lead in made-treys with 29, two ahead of Edmondson. Delk had made at least one threeball in seven-straight games before going 0-of-3 against LSU. Before that he had made 15-of-31 attempts. He went 1-of-3 at Nashville.
*Senior center Wesley Morgan has blocked 14 shots in the last five outings, giving him 30 swats through 18 games. In five of the last six years State's leading blocker had notched between 20 and 32; 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.
*Vanderbilt became the first opponent to shoot better than break-even against State this season, and did it by a sizable margin at almost 58%. The Bulldogs had been leading the league in field-goal defense, but their last three opponents have made good on a combined 49.8% of their shots. Worse, State has been lit-up from long-range in those losses by composite 24-of-59 accuracy at the three-point arc, or almost 41%.
*With such a young team and new lineup, career stats are modest at most for this squad. Edmondson is the lone veteran with more than 300 points (331), while junior Slater has the next-most points on the roster at 261. This roster is better on the boards. Morgan (194), Rhodes (132), Slater (127), and Piotr Stelmach (108) are all into triple digits now.
*It's well-known that the Bulldogs rank last in the SEC in both turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio. Only once this season has State been credited with more assists than turnovers, that in the overtime win against Santa Clara. In their last four losses the Dogs have misplayed the ball 24, 17, 18, and 21 times, against 9-13-5-9 assists. State is averaging 18.3 turnovers for the season, 19.2 in SEC games. Last year's team lost the ball 14.8 times overall, 15.2 SEC.
*But even if the current clip is giving the coach fits, it's nowhere close to the school ‘record' set by a 1975-76 team that threw the ball away 19.9 times nightly. And with 330 turnovers through 18 games, these Dogs will have to get busy if they're to catch the season record of 583 set in 1995-96 and tied in 2001-02.