*Bulldog teams have won their last three SEC openers, home or away; and seven of the last eight.
*The Bulldogs have not played in Humphrey Coliseum since December 18, and will have gone 23 days between home dates by the time they host Mississippi on Wednesday. As the league schedule has worked out, State will only have to play consecutive SEC road games twice the rest of the season.
About the Volunteers: Given how the NCAA Tournament turned out, it's easily overlooked that Florida did not win the SEC Eastern Division. Tennessee did with a 12-4 league record and 22-8 overall mark in Bruce Pearl's first season. While their own March tournament didn't go as well as the rival Gators, it was a splendid debut by any measure. Now his second team has shown this was no first-year fluke as the Vols have shrugged off graduation losses, filled openings with some hotshot freshmen, and resumed winning. They not only have rankings of their own (19th AP, 25th ESPN) but have claimed some ranked club scalps already this year by knocking off Memphis, Oklahoma State, and Texas, the latter in double-OT. Tennessee is certainly on a winter tear, having scored the first perfect December record in nine years and winners of eight-straight coming into SEC season. There's no secret formula to UT success: score early and often and keep both the game and clock running. Tennessee leads the SEC in scoring and is 8th nationally at 86 points per game despite a middling shooting accuracy of 45%. They also give up more points than anyone in the league so far, though quality of competition certainly factors into that. Key stat: under Pearl the Vols are 22-1 when scoring 80 or more points. There are nights when it seems guard Chris Lofton could score that many himself. The SEC's top gunner is notching over 22 per outing, and while the junior has ridiculous range (and a trey in 73 of his 75 UT games) he can beat defenders on the drive and score in lane-traffic. And don't bother fouling him either. Lofton is all the more effective now with the emergence of backcourt partner JaJuan Smith, a 30-game backup last year who is thriving as a junior starter. He and Lofton have 89 treys this year combined, compared to the 90 UT opponents have hit. Then there is the most versatile and least-defensible player in this loop, with senior Dane Bradshaw doing a little…no, make that a lot…of everything at each end, especially getting the ball to teammates who will score it. Tennessee lost three starters who contributed almost half the team's scoring last year and a big bunch of boards. Not a problem, apparently, though it has left the Vols with one of the shortest starting lineups anywhere. Rookie Duke Crews has stepped in at center and filled in the stat-gap with ten points and almost seven boards, while fellow frosh Wayne Chism has been a big boost on the glass off the bench. Playing so many freshman faces probably impacts such things as field goal defense and rebounding, but the Vols do so much else well enough (check that assist/turnover rate) to offset any problems. Besides, why worry that the other team is scoring two points when yours is able to come right back with three?
The Series: The schools have been getting together on hardwood since 1924, and Tennessee has dominated the series with a 71-38 lead. That includes wins in five of the last seven meetings since 2000, all in the regular season. State and Tennessee have not played in a SEC Tournaments since 1999 when the Bulldogs won in Atlanta. The Vols own the Bulldogs on their court to a 41-9 degree, while State is 26-24 against UT in Starkville. Tennessee also leads 6-2 in SEC Tourney games. Rick Stansbury is 4-5 against the Vols, while Bruce Pearl is 1-0 against State.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Tennessee: F Dane Bradshaw, SR 6-4 200, 7.4ppg, 4.3rpg, 5.6apg, 11 blks; C Duke Crews, FR 6-7 233, 10.3ppg, 6.8rpg, 10 blks; G Chris Lofton, JR 6-2 197, 22.3ppg, 3.8rpg, 54 3ptrs; G JaJuan Smith, JR 6-2 190, 15.4ppg, 4.0rpg, 35 3ptrs; G Ramar Smith, FR 6-2 185, 7.1ppg, 2.8apg.
Top Backups: F Wayne Chism, FR 6-9 230, 8.5ppg, 5.7rpg; F Ryan Childress, FR 6-9 250, 5.9ppg, 4.6rpg; G Jordan Howell, JR 6-3 188, 3.1ppg, 2.2apg.
Mississippi State: F Richard Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 7.4ppg, 2.8rpg, 16 3ptrs; F Jarvis Varnado, FR, 6-9 195, 7.0ppg, 6.0rpg, 35 blks; G Ben Hansbrough, FR, 6-3 200, 8.3ppg, 3.2apg, 4.1apg; G Reginald Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 9.3ppg, 2.1rpg, 21 3ptrs; G Jamont Gordon, SO, 6-4 225, 15.3ppg, 7.6rpg, 4.7apg
Top Backups: C Charles Rhodes, JR, 6-8 240, 11.2ppg, 5.8rpg; G Barry Stewart, FR, 6-2 165, 11.6ppg, 3.3rpg, 29 3ptrs; C Vernon Goodridge, JR, 6-9 225, 3.9ppg, 4.5rpg, 19 blks.
By The Numbers:
Points Per Game: MSU 76.5ppg, UT 85.5ppg
PPG Allowed: MSU 61.9ppg, UT 73.9ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 47.4%, UT 45.0%
FG Defense: MSU 36.5%, UT 44.0%
3PT Shooting: MSU 37.5%, UT 37.0%
3PT Made Per Game: MSU 7.8, UT 9.5
3PT Att's. Per Game: MSU 20.9, UT 25.6
Rebounding: MSU 41.2rpg, UT 38.9rpg
Rebounds Margin: MSU +5.8, UT +2.2
FT Shooting: MSU 63.7%, UT 66.7%
Free Throws Att. Per Game: MSU 24.4, UT 27.6
Assists PG: MSU 14.3apg, UT 16.6apg
Turnover Margin: MSU –2.2, UT +4.6
Bulldog Basketball Notes: Coach Rick Stansbury finished his ninth pre-SEC schedule with a 89-20 record in those games. His teams are now 56-11 in all December games. Counting post-season tournaments Stansbury teams are now 98-26 outside league play.
*As another SEC season opens, Stansbury is 20-44 in league road games and 47-17 at home. He is 7-1 in all league openers.
*State has not entered SEC season after consecutive losses since 1990-91, when those Bulldogs lost twice in a tournament in Miami. They also opened league play at Tennessee, and won…starting that team on their way to the 1991 SEC championship.
*Stansbury has used four starting lineups through 13 games, with three Dogs—G/F Jamont Gordon, G Reginald Delk, F Richard Delk—opening every game. The same fivesome, with Vernon Goodridge at center and Ben Hansbrough at G, has started the last eight games. Last season State used ten lineups for 30 games.
*In their seven-game winning streak the Bulldogs shot 49% from the field, 38% from the arc. In their last two losses State still hit 34% on trey-tries, but only 41% overall.
*Strangely enough though, in those consecutive defeats the Dogs shot better from the foul line (69.4%) than the 61% accuracy at the stripe during their win streak.
*Freshman Hansbrough is the team's most reliable marksman at the charity stripe at 85.3%. But take away his free throwing and the rest of the team is just 61% for the year.
*Junior Gordon had another double-digit scoring streak going until George Mason held him to a season-low eight points. Gordon had notched ten or more points in all of State's seven-straight wins after getting nine at Clemson. Gordon had a double-digit string of 15 games from last February into November.
*Gordon was 3-of-13 shooting at GMU, spoiling a run of good accuracy during the win streak where he hit 45% from the field and averaged 17.1 points. At Missouri, he came back to hit 6-of-10 and get 15 points.
*At 6-4, Gordon continues to lead State in rebounding with 7.6 per game compared to his rookie-year average of 6.8. A measure of his all-around efforts is that only twice this year has Gordon not led State in either points, rebounds, or assists. The SEC's turnover leader last year, Gordon now has a positive rate of 61 credited assists against 58 charged turnovers.
*Since taking over as the starting center, Varnado has averaged 8.4 points in nine games and hit 65% of his shots. Yet he has not been asked to play more than 24 minutes any contest so far this freshman year.
*The fresh legs have certainly helped Varnado's shot-blocking. He has swatted aside 35 balls in 13 games, which is already more than the team-leader in blocks in both 2005 and 2005 (32 each season). State has not had anyone block more than 40 shots (Branden Vincent, 2004) in the last seven seasons, a mark Varnado seems certain to reach soon.
*Varnado had seven swats against New Orleans, helping State set a program record with 15 blocks that night. The previous mark was set 30 years before with 14 against Northeast Missouri State in 1976.
*Varnado posted his first collegiate double-double with a 13-point, 15-rebound night against New Orleans. Even in the two team losses the rookie had 15 total rebounds, bringing his season average boards to 6.0
*The center whose place Varnado took, junior Charles Rhodes, followed up two strong efforts off the bench with a poor showing at Missouri when he got six points and three rebounds in 24 minutes. Before that he had scored 25 points against UNO and 14 at George Mason. Rhodes has not started since hurting his right wrist in the Charlotte game on November 29, but the injury has not been an issue for weeks now.
*Rhodes scored double-digits in all 16 SEC regular-season games as a sophomore. He has a career average of 10.2 points in all games and is closing in on 600 career points.
*After a slow November soph Reginald Delk has gotten his long-range shooting back on track. In December he was 15-of-39 at the arc, compared to 6-of-24 for the first month of the schedule. Delk has 80 treys for his young career already and set the MSU freshman record with 59 longballs.
*Freshman G Barry Stewart is still the team's top outside gunner, with 29 treys through 13 games, all off the bench. Interestingly, the rookie has hit 13-of-32 at the arc in road games, 40.1%. At Humphrey Coliseum he is 16-of-44, or 36.4%.
*Hansbrough had a big shooting night, at home, hitting 5-of-6 against Corpus Christi on December 2. He followed that by going just 1-of-6 in the next five games. But in his past two games Hansbrough has found the range again and combined to hit 4-of-9 from the arc.
*In his eight starts Hansbrough has issued 43 assists; he had ten in the five games he did not take tipoff.
*When they were 9-2 the Bulldogs were leading the SEC in field goal and three-point defense. In the two losses they allowed GMU and Missouri to make 44% overall and 36% on trey-tries.
*More disturbing, and likely contributing to the defensive letdowns, has been a dramatic reversal of form in taking care of the ball. During their winning streak the Bulldogs had 107 assists and 91 turnovers; in the two losses they combined for 26 assists but 39 turnovers.