About the Jaguars: It took time—four seasons, to be specific. But in his fourth year John Pelphrey produced the sort of results expected when he took over at South Alabama. His 2005-06 Jaguar squad had their breakout year, going 24-7 and winning both the Sun Belt East title and the conference tournament. That more than earned a NCAA Tournament berth, though a first-round matchup with eventual champions Florida meant it was a one-day stay. Now, Pelphrey is experiencing the next phase of his business: rebuilding a lineup. USA scheduled early with that in mind and among their five victims are Winston Salem State, Morehead State, West Florida, and Samford. And that last win was a come-from-behind job at home by a 59-54 score. The Jags have faired much less-well against comparable conference-clubs with losses (admittedly on the road) to Fresno State, Bowling Green, and most recently Auburn. USA played pretty well there and led as late as 14 minutes of the last half before the Tigers came back. Two starters are back from the NCAA participants. Senior Carlos Smith returns to run the point, where he started every game last year. He doesn't just dribble and pass, he can score as his 22 points at Auburn showed. Fellow senior Leandro Buboltz is also back; he isn't a primary offensive option but does provide points and had a good game against the Gators under NCAA pressure. It's a junior, big guard Demetic Bennett, who has stepped up his game since promotion to a starting job. He's leading the team in both scoring and rebounding and had his first career double-double with 21 points and 10 boards against Samford. And MSU folk remember guard Stephen Cowherd, a freshman backup on the 2003-04 Bulldog squad. Now a senior he's a threat off the bench and from the arc. Transfers are a way of doing business at USA; Pelphrey signed four this year for fast help and guard Daon Merritt (formerly of Richmond) is giving it with a dozen points per game. Other imports are Kenny Hooks (Oregon State), Bradon Davis (Birmingham Southern) and Earnest Little (UAB). Little, a 6-9 postman, becomes eligible next Saturday and will help shore up the frontcourt. The Jaguars also inked prep talent, with 6-9 twins Charles and Philip Tabet out of Detroit to boost play in the paint and a couple of high school marksmen. This rebuilt team can use the offensive aid; USA has shot 50% just once this season, against West Florida, and in that game they hit for 15 treys. And not surprisingly Pelphrey's teams make a living at the arc, throwing up over 25 trey-tries per game and converting almost ten. That's even ahead of the 8.8-made per game of last year. But the Jags can be beaten-up on the backboards, and officials must not like their style much as USA has attempted only 139 free throws all season; just four attempts at Auburn.
The Series: Mississippi State is a perfect 9-0 against South Alabama on the hardwood, though the ‘series' has been played entirely in two eras. The schools met five times in the 1970s, then resumed playing after a 23-year break in 2002. It's been an annual game since resumption with State taking all four meetings, though all four were good tight contests. Last year's 66-52 win in Humphrey Coliseum was the largest margin of MSU victory of this decade's meetings. State is 6-0 on the home court against the Jaguars and 3-0 in Mobile, the last win there in 2003.
Projected Starting Lineups:
South Alabama: F/G Demetric Bennett, JR 6-5 210, 15.5ppg, 5.9rpg, 22 3ptrs; F Leandro Buboltz, JR 6-7 225, 8.1ppg, 4.4rpg; F Brandon Davis, SO 6-7 195, 6.8ppg, 5.8rpg, 10 blks; G Carlos Smith, SR 6-0 180, 11.4ppg, 17 3ptrs, 17 stls; G Daon Merritt, JR 5-10 200, 12.1ppg, 10 3ptrs, 50 asts.
Top Backups: G Stephen Cowherd, SR 6-2 190, 6.0ppg, 8 3ptrs; F Kenny Hooks, JR 6-7 200, 4.4ppg, 2.1rpg; F Trajinski Grigsby, SR 6-7 210, 4.1ppg, 2.3rpg.
Mississippi State (tentative): F Richard Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 4.7ppg, 2.2apg; F Jarvis Varnado, FR, 6-9 195, 4.3ppg, 4.2rpg, 12 blks; C Charles Rhodes, JR, 6-8 240, 13.2ppg, 6.4rpg; G Reginald Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 8.3ppg, 2.0rpg, 8 3ptrs; G Jamont Gordon, SO, 6-4 225, 16.7ppg, 9.0rpg, 7 3ptrs.
Top Backups: G Ben Hansbrough, FR, 6-3 200, 11.5ppg, 3.0apg, 12 3ptrs; G Barry Stewart, FR, 6-2 165, 11.3ppg, 3.8rpg, 12 3ptrs; F Piotr Stelmach, SR, 6-9 204, 3.4ppg, 4.4rpg; C Vernon Goodridge, JR, 6-9 225, 3.7ppg, 2.8rpg.
By The Numbers:
Points Per Game: MSU 75.5ppg, USA 70.1ppg
PPG Allowed: MSU 62.7ppg, USA 65.1ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 47.5%, USA 43.9%
FG Defense: MSU 36.1%, USA 45.1%
3PT Shooting: MSU 39.0%, USA 37.3%
3PT Made Per Game: MSU 7.7, USA 9.5
3PT Att's. Per Game: MSU 19.7, USA 25.5
Rebounding: MSU 40.5rpg, USA 30.8rpg
Rebounds Margin: MSU +6.8, USA –3.3
FT Shooting: MSU 65.9%, USA 65.5%
Free Throws Att. Per Game: MSU 27.3, USA 17.4
Assists PG: MSU 13.3apg, USA 14.6apg
Turnover Margin: MSU –2.7, USA +6.0
Did You Know: State has another Sun Belt Conference opponent upcoming, as the Bulldogs meet New Orleans on December 21 in Jackson's Mississippi Coliseum.
Bulldog Basketball Notes: In nine seasons under Rick Stansbury, State teams are now 93-24 in non-conference competition and have won 66 of the last 75 non-league games. They have won their last 18 non-SEC home games.
*Stansbury has 168 career wins; if State wins Saturday the coach ties the legendary Babe McCarthy for second-most career victories at State. Richard Williams leads the career-list with 191 wins.
*Stansbury teams are now 51-9 in December games.
*The Bulldogs are still on the negative side of the turnover/assist ratio. But things are improving here; State had 10 scoring passes against 11 giveaways in the win over Charlotte, then were in positive territory at 17/13 in beating Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
*Soph G/F Jamont Gordon has made his own progress in that aspect. Through six games he has 29 assists and 30 turnovers. Though, his 5.0 turnover per game rate is still a bit higher than his 4.73 average over 30 games as a freshman.
*More impressive is Gordon's offense in the early season. After two 20-point games last season Gordon has three already this winter, including the last two outings with 20 points against Charlotte and 24 against Corpus Christi. In the process Gordon has raised his season average to 16.7 points.
*In his last two games Gordon has grabbed 18 combined rebounds, keeping him atop the team here also at 9.0 per game. Through just 36 career games the 6-4 Gordon has 257 boards, most of any active Bulldog.
*Because he did not play in the last game with a sprained right wrist, junior F/C Charles Rhodes still can claim a 23-game streak of scoring in double-digits dating back to last December 30. Save for a 20-point burst, all in the second half, at Clemson, Rhodes has been consistent in scoring 14, 10, 11, and 11, and done it on 55% accuracy.
*And after making one three-point shot, in seven attempts, for his first two State seasons, Rhodes is 2-of-6 at the arc this year.
*Rhodes is past the 500-career point threshold with 514 in 50 career games, and with 269 rebounds. The minimums for top-20 status at MSU are 1,144 points and 564 rebounds.
*Freshman G Ben Hansbrough got his first college start last Saturday and scored 23 points, hitting 5-of-6 three point attempts. Going into the game he was 7-of-14 at the arc for five games. Those five treys were most for a Bulldog so far this season, as was Hansbrough's eight assists.
*Fellow freshman G Barry Stewart is 12-of-26 at the arc, all six games coming off the bench. Between them these two rookies have made 24-of-46 trey tries, or 52%. By contrast the three veteran guards and regular starters Gordon, Reginald and Richard Delk, are 19-of-61, 31%.
*Soph Reginald Delk is 8-of-29 at the arc through six games. He set the MSU record for freshman treys with 59 last season.
*State's 39% team-accuracy at the arc is far ahead of last year's 31.4% overall shooting and 31.2% in non-conference games.
*The Bulldogs have blocked 33 shots in six games, also ahead of last year's pace. Freshman C Jarvis Varnado has a dozen swats and soph C Vernon Goodridge seven.
*Three Dogs have started all five games this early season: Gordon and Delk twins Richard and Reginald. Varnado has started twice, against Winthrop and Corpus Christi. With Hansbrough opening against CC, State has used four lineups in six games. Stansbury used ten starting lineups in 30 games lasts season.