*A three-game West win streak has brought the Bulldogs into a three-way tie for first in the Division with Alabama and Ole Miss. All six of State's SEC wins have come within the West.
*And while State is 0-4 against Eastern squads, the combined margins of defeat is 18 points. Vanderbilt is 3-1 against the West with the loss at Auburn; they have beaten Ole Miss and LSU at home and won at Alabama.
*These teams played one common non-SEC foe. State opened the year with a 90-55 home win over Nicholls State, while the Commodores beat NSU 76-40 in Nashville.
*Mississippi State is 4-1 this February; in his nine seasons Rick Stansbury teams are now 36-28 for the month.
About the Commodores: There just one senior on the roster but make no mistake, Vanderbilt is one of the more experienced and cohesive clubs in this conference. And regardless of that blowout loss at Tennessee ten days ago the Commodores are playing like a team preparing for the post-season. True, five of Kevin Stallings' seven VU squads have gotten bids; but only the 2004 team appeared in the NCAAs, after a SEC Tournament run. The NIT won't be enough this time around, not as well as the ‘Dores have performed so far in the by-far tougher side of the SEC. The formula for success is straightforward enough, as Vanderbilt simply tries to out-shoot and out-score the opposition. It's worked quite nicely as VU ranks 4th in SEC offense and 5th in shooting; that is sufficient, usually, to offset a defense that ranks 10th in scoring and 8th in shooting. Only Tennessee relies more on perimeter shooting than the ‘Dores as everybody on the floor has clearance to bomb away. Yet this isn't just reckless running and gunning, as Vanderbilt tops the conference in both assists and turnover (or lack thereof) ratio. All get involved in distributing the ball so there isn't a pure point guard here, though Alex Gordon does have more assists than most. Yet he's also an accomplished marksman with 40 treys. Junior Dan Cage is a tough matchup at 6-5, whether shooting over defenders or slicing through them. He's the SEC's second-most accurate outside gunner at almost 45% on his trey-tries. 6-6 Shan Foster is a lot more of the same thing. In fact labeling these guys as ‘guards' or ‘forwards' is meaningless in the sort of swirling approach Vandy takes to creating open shots and/or lanes. Foster topped his team in scoring last year at 15.9 points. He's still around that pace but has been surpassed by old ‘Dore Derrick Byars, who is making a strong bid for league player of the year. The former Virginia guard is fourth in VU scoring now and raised his average from 12.4 points to 16.8 currently. He's also 7th in accuracy and tenth in SEC steals. Ross Neltner was down the depth chart at LSU, now at Vanderbilt he's in the starting lineup scoring double-digits and hitting the backboards. His activation has made junior Ted Skuchas the backup post player. Even with those two centers Vanderbilt is not going to overpower most foes around the goal, which is why the team is 11th in SEC rebounding and last in shot blocking. And while the ‘Dores are, again, the best team in the league in shooting free throws they aren't getting as many opportunities as usual. Seven conference clubs, including State, have been to the line more often.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Vanderbilt: G/F Shan Foster, SO 6-6 200, 15.0ppg, 4.8rpg, 51 3ptrs; G/F Derrick Byars, JR 6-7 230, 16.8ppg, 4.9rpg, 3.2apg, 57 3ptrs; F Ross Neltner, JR 6-9 245, 10.2ppg, 6.1rpg; G Dan Cage, JR 6-5 215, 11.3ppg, 3.0rpg, 60 3ptrs; G Alex Gordon, SO 5-11 164, 7.9ppg, 3.7apg, 40 3ptrs.
Top Backups: C Ted Skuchas, JR 6-11 240, 4.1ppg, 2.4rpg, 22 blks; G Jermaine Beal, FR 6-3 207, 3.9ppg, 2.0rpg; F JeJuan Brown, FR 6-7 225, 3.2ppg, 2.5rpg.
Mississippi State: G/F Dietric Slater, SR 6-3 200, 9.5ppg, 5.5rpg; F Richard Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 6.0ppg, 2.5rpg, 25 3ptrs; F Charles Rhodes, JR, 6-8 240, 12.9ppg, 6.0rpg, 34 blks; G Reginald Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 9.3ppg, 2.1rpg, 44 3ptrs; G Jamont Gordon, SO, 6-4 225, 16.1ppg, 7.2rpg, 4.6 apg.
Top Backups: F Jarvis Varnado, FR, 6-9 195, 5.1ppg, 4.4rpg, 55 blks; G Ben Hansbrough, FR, 6-3 200, 7.0ppg, 2.5apg, 34 3ptrs, 3.4apg; G Barry Stewart, FR, 6-2 165, 10.8ppg, 3.4rpg, 52 3ptrs.
By The Numbers:
Points Per Game: MSU 76.0, VAN 76.9
PPG Allowed: MSU 67.0, VAN 69.7
FG Shooting: MSU 46.5%, VAN 46.6%
FG Defense: MSU 39.2%, VAN 42.9%
3PT Shooting: MSU 37.1%, VAN 37.8%
3PT Made Per Game: MSU 7.9, VAN 9.0
3PT Att's. Per Game: MSU 21.3, VAN 23.7
Rebounding: MSU 38.8, VAN 34.1
Rebounds Margin: MSU +3.1, VAN –1.8
FT Shooting: MSU 66.4%, VAN 71.8%
Free Throws Att. Per Game: MSU 22.6, VAN 19.2
Assists PG: MSU 14.2, VAN 17.1
Turnover Margin: MSU –0.8, VAN +3.0
The Series: Vanderbilt leads 70-41 in a series dating back to 1922. That margin has been built on VU's unique home court where they are 42-8 against State. In Starkville the tally favors the Bulldogs 29-21, and State is 16-7 in games played in Humphrey Coliseum. Vanderbilt has not won in Starkville since 1993. Vanderbilt has been State's most-frequent opponent in SEC Tournaments with 11 meetings, VU holding a 7-4 lead there. Rick Stanbury is 7-4 against Vanderbilt, while Kevin Stallings is 4-5 against State.
Bulldog Basketball Notes: Mississippi State is back in first place in the SEC in shooting defense, allowing 39.2% for the season. In the last two wins the Dogs have limited Arkansas and LSU to near-identical rates either side of 36%. *MSU is also best in the league in defending outside shots, allowing 29.4%. Which makes for an interesting matchup because Vanderbilt is third SEC in making treys at 37.8%. *State was not credited with a blocked shot at LSU, shut out in swats for the first time this season. This has dropped them to second in the SEC standings, trailing Arkansas in blocks-average 6.65 to 6.52. The team's previous low-game for blocks this year was three, twice, and in the previous four games the Dogs had a combined 38 rejections.
*So State is still a dozen blocks behind the standing season-record of 175 by the 1995-96 team. At their current rate the Bulldogs will break that mark this week. Three players rank in the SEC's top-15 in blocking; Jarvis Varnado is 4th, Charles Rhodes 10th, and Vernon Goodridge 13th. *The Bulldogs have connected on 198 three-pointers in 25 games, and are just behind pace to match the season record of 240 by the 1994-95 team in 30 games. They are making 7.9 per game and have five assured contests left to play counting the SEC Tournament.
*G/F Jamont Gordon is on the offensive tear of his career, having scored 113 points in the last six games. Included was a career-best 27 point night at Alabama. Gordon has notched double-digits in the last ten games, and 22 of 25 this season.
*Gordon has averaged 14.2 points in State's six SEC wins; 19.7 in the six SEC wins.
*Gordon is at 815 career points, in 55 games, and 382 rebounds. Both are the most of any active Dog.
*Gordon ranks 6th in SEC scoring, 6th assists, 8th in rebounding, 10th FT%, 14th soooting, *Gordon now ranks in the SEC's top-ten in four categories. He is 6th in assists, 7th in scoring, 8th in rebounds, and 10th in free-throw shooting. He is also 15th in field goal percentage.
*Gordon has become one of the most reliable stripe-scorers in the league, after hitting only 65% overall and under 60% SEC as a freshman. In his last eight games he is 49-of-61 on free throws, and boosted his full-season average to 72.9% (78.1% SEC).
*Gordon has attempted 155 free throws this year; the three Dogs who play center have combined for 162.
*For the first time this season, Gordon was not charged with a turnover in the LSU game. He is still averaging 3.6 giveaways this year, but that's greatly-improved from his freshman season when he lost the ball 4.7 times per outing and led the SEC in turnovers.
*After being held to eight points at Alabama, Rhodes has responded with 25, 19, and 15 points in State's winning streak. The junior has scored double-digits in nine SEC games; as a sophomore he had ten or more points in all 16 league contests.
*Rhodes is not only scoring consistently again, he is shooting with efficiency and ranks 4th in the SEC in field-goal accuracy at 55.6% for the year as a whole. It's in the last nine games where he has picked up the pace, making 54-of-95 shots, and Rhodes has attempted over a dozen shots in all the past three contests. When State was struggling Rhodes was only taking seven or eight shots per game.
*Rhodes has raised his career shooting rate to 56.3%, which ties him with Robert Jackson (1999-01) on the MSU list. He has scored 758 points in 69 MSU games, right at a 11.0 average.
*Rhodes was not credited with a blocked shot Saturday so he is still 9th on the MSU career list, one behind assistant Coach Marcus Grant's 72 (1992-95).
*Before the Auburn game Rhodes had attempted just 29 free throws in nine SEC games. In MSU's three-straight wins he has been 12-of-15 at the stripe.
*Freshman G Ben Hansbrough is being worked into more minutes in the role. In the last five games the rookie has had 18 assists; he had just three the three preceding contests. Though coming off the bench Hansbrough now ranks 12th-best in the SEC assist list, better than some league starters; and he's 4th-best in assist/turnover ratio.
*With improved ball-handling by Gordon and Hansbrough's development, State has gone from the SEC's worst club in assist/turnover rate to 9th.
*Freshman Varnado already has 55 blocks for the 3rd-best year ever by a Bulldog rookie. The freshman record is 65 by Erick Dampier in 1994. Varnado needs 59 more blocks to move into the career top-ten, a list also led by Dampier at 249.
*Since State has gone back to the four-guard lineup, senior G Dietric Slater has thrived. In his five starts he has averaged 10.8 points, though his shooting has been erratic. And while LSU held him out of double-digits, ending a five-game string, Slater was able to beat the Bengals to ten rebounds…which became MSU's margin on the boards against the Tigers.
*Slater might be even more important going to the glass in this smallish lineup. He has averaged over six boards as a SEC starter this month.
*Freshman G Barry Stewart seems to have survived his shooting slump nicely. After going 2-of-16 at the arc over a tough four-game span, the rookie has been good on 7-of-11 trey tries in State's three wins. Stewart began his SEC career by making 54% of his long shots in the first five games before the cold spell.
*For most of the season Stewart has shot better from arcs drawn on hostile courts. But now he has almost balanced the books. On three-point attempts Stewart is 24-of-59 (40.7%) in road games, and 27-of-70 (40.0%) at home. And in SEC action he is now 12-of-27 at home (44.4%) and 11-of-26 (42.3%) on the road.
*Stewart now has 52 longballs for the season. That's seven shy of the MSU freshman record set last winter by teammate Reginald Delk.
*Along with his long-range chills, Stewart also had a stretch of struggling to make good from the charity stripe. After hitting 25-straight free throws and 27-of-31 he fell off to 3-of-7 in two games. But he's made all four chances the last two games, keeping his season FT shooting at 79.3%.
*While he watches Stewart threaten his rookie-record, soph Reg Delk has contributed 44 treys to the team this season, 23 in SEC action. Delk now has 103 threes for his college career and already ranks 10th on the MSU all-time list; he needs eight to catch Doug Hartsfield (1988-91) for 9th place.
*Between them twin brothers Reginald and Richard Delk have 69 treys this year; they had 70 together as freshmen.