*Besides playing for the West title and whatever credit that means with NCAA Tournament selectors, these four—and mathematically Arkansas must be included—teams want to lock up at least a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament by finishing first or second. Only twice since the modern SEC Tournament began in 1979 has a team that played in the first round won the event. Auburn did it in 1985 in the old ten-team league, and post-expansion only Arkansas in 2000.
About the Razorbacks: After returning to SEC contention and ending a four-year NCAA absence, it looked as if Arkansas was finally back. Winning 10 of 11 to open Stan Heath's fifth year in Fayetteville was further encouragement, as was opening the conference schedule with an impressive (at the time) win over Alabama. It's been almost all downhill since, though. Losses at LSU and Auburn might not have just broken backs but hearts, too, as Arkansas let Tennessee stroll to an easy win in Fayetteville. Suddenly Heath is everything but officially fired in public opinion barring a SEC Tourney run and upset NCAA berth. Thing is, the potential for a competitive club is clearly here, especially in a Division as poor top-to-bottom as the SEC West. Arkansas has the best rookie in the league in guard Patrick Beverley, who ranks 13th in scoring, third in steals, 15th in assists, and second in free-throwing. Skinny swingman Sonny Weeks is another talented addition, from the juco ranks, who balances the perimeter offense while slipping in for rebounds. And of course intra-West transfer guard Gary Ervin has given this offense the up-tempo playmaker it needed. Yes, he can still be a turnover terror, but Ervin is also the sort of creator who complements the spot-up shooters and is third in SEC assists. When these three are on their game the Hogs can put up points in a hurry. 7-0 Steven Hill is a much-improved postman this junior year, not just blocking shots—which he again leads the league in—but scoring a few points and working for tougher rebounds. The key cog in this machine, though, is Charles Thomas. The Jackson native has consistently improved over his three seasons and now has the numbers to be a legit all-conference candidate. Depth is the question here; while Heath was using a larger mix of personnel through the first two months he seems to have settled on a six-man rotation now, depending on whether Hill or 6-10 Darian Townes starts in the post. Only F/C Vincent Hunter is netting as many as nine minutes in SEC season. There are reasons for dissatisfaction in Fayetteville; this roster has enough tools to be better than 10th in SEC scoring, as it is third-best in field-goal accuracy. And they defend well, especially in the paint. If Heath can survive the season, he will have all these pieces back for 2007-08 because there isn't a senior on the roster.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Arkansas: F Sonny Weems, JR 6-6 200, 11.5ppg, 4.8rpg, 29 3ptrs; F Charles Thomas, JR 6-8 235, 11.6 ppg, 5.5rpg; C Steven Hill, JR 7-0 250, 6.4ppg, 4.4rpg, 84 blks; G Patrick Beverley, FR 6-1 172 14.2ppg, 4.2rpg, 3.3apg, 62 3ptrs; G Gary Ervin, JR 5-11 176, 9.1ppg, 3.4rpg, 5.1apg, 25 3ptrs.
Top Backups: F/C Darian Townes, JR 6-10 250, 8.4ppg, 4.4rpg, 45 blks; F Vincent Hunter, JR 6-10 225, 3.5ppg, 2.0rpg; G Stefan Welsh, FR 6-2 180, 2.8ppg, 19 3ptrs.
Mississippi State: G/F Dietric Slater, SR 6-3 200, 10.7ppg, 5.8rpg; F Richard Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 5.7ppg, 2.5rpg, 25 3ptrs; C Charles Rhodes, JR, 6-8 240, 13.1ppg, 5.9rpg, 38 blks; G Reginald Delk, SO, 6-4 175, 9.9ppg, 2.0rpg, 53 3ptrs; G Jamont Gordon, SO, 6-4 225, 15.7ppg, 7.3rpg, 4.9 apg, 33 3ptrs.
Top Backups: F Jarvis Varnado, FR, 6-9 195, 4.9ppg, 4.1rpg, 56 blks; G Ben Hansbrough, FR, 6-3 200, 6.7ppg, 2.4apg, 35 3ptrs, 3.4apg; G Barry Stewart, FR, 6-2 165, 10.5ppg, 3.3rpg, 56 3ptrs.
By The Numbers:
Points Per Game: MSU 76.1, ARK 71.0
PPG Allowed: MSU 67.9, ARK 65.6
FG Shooting: MSU 46.5%, ARK 47.0%
FG Defense: MSU 40.0%, ARK 41.3%
3PT Shooting: MSU 37.3%, ARK 35.5%
3PT Made Per Game: MSU 8.1, ARK 6.0
3PT Att's. Per Game: MSU 585, ARK 473 Rebounding: MSU 38.5, ARK 34.5
Rebounds Margin: MSU +2.9, ARK +2.3
FT Shooting: MSU 65.8%, ARK 70.6%
Free Throws Att. Per Game: MSU 599, ARK 585 Assists PG: MSU 14.6, ARK 15.6
Turnover Margin: MSU –0.5, ARK –1.2
The Series: Arkansas holds a 23-18 lead in the series, though Mississippi State has had the better of it lately by winning eight of the last ten meetings. That includes a pair of wins in Fayetteville, in 2004 and '05. But Arkansas still owns a healthy 14-3 lead in games played at home. The teams have met just once in a SEC Tournament with Arkansas winning in 1999 84-79 in overtime, in Atlanta. Rick Stansbury has a 9-9 record against the Razorbacks, while Stan Heath is 2-7 against State.
The Last Time: Five Bulldogs scored in double-figures as Mississippi State won 84-60 in Starkville on February 14. It was a sweetheart of a game for MSU shooters, who threw in 11 three-pointers with seven of them in the first half. Reginald Delk and Jamont Gordon both had a trio of treys in the romp, while Charles Rhodes scored 19 points inside with seven rebounds. Arkansas did take a 39-37 edge in total boards but shot just 36% from the floor and 7-of-22 at the arc. Charles Thomas had 14 points and Sean McCurdy 10. In his first trip back to Humphrey Coliseum since a 2005 transfer, guard Gary Ervin did not start. He did play 20 minutes off the bench but was 0-for-4 shooting.
Bulldog Basketball Notes: A brilliant shooting day by Georgia knocked Mississippi State from their perch atop the SEC in field-goal defense. The MSU Dogs are now allowing 40% even for the season, three-thousandths of a point behind Kentucky. In the previous three wins State limited Arkansas, LSU, and Vanderbilt to a combined 61-of-159, or 38%
*And contrary to popular opinion, the Bulldogs do defend the arc well; they still are third-best in the SEC at that arc-art. It simply comes down to the fact that opponents attempt more treys against State than most league clubs, and some days more will fall than others.
*As recently as ten days ago Mississippi State was leading the league in blocking shots. The Dogs are still second with 169, but have fallen far behind Arkansas (183). This team is just six blocks shy of the program record of 175 set by the 1995-96 team. Only once this year, at LSU last week, has State not been credited with swatting a shot.
*With a dozen treys made at Georgia, the Bulldogs have 218 for the season. If they stay on their pace of making around eight-per game, this team will break the season record in the first round of the SEC Tournament. The standard for now is 240 made-treys by the 1994-95 squad, in 30 games.
*G/F Dietric Slater is only getting to play half of his senior season, but it is turning out to be the best year of his whole Bulldog career. He is averaging 10.8 through 15 games, compared to the 10.1 average of his junior season. And his SEC-game average is up to 11.2 points, as he has scored double-digits in all but two league outings this year.
*More impressive has been the 6-3 Slater's work on the glass, where he has become a beast of late. In the last three games Slater has grabbed 25 rebounds, and as a starter he is averaging 6.6 boards which is better than any MSU true post-player.
*And this career 58% free-throw shooter is suddenly efficient at the stripe. In the last six games he has made good on 13-of-18 free throws.
*Slater is over 500 career points now, with 532 for his 93 Bulldog games.
*But this roster's career-point leader is a sophomore. G Jamont Gordon is up to 838 points (57 games) now, though he had his 11-game streak of scoring double-digits ended at Georgia when he managed only eight points on 3-of-12 shooting. That was an aberration for Gordon in another way, because historically he has scored better than his season-average in MSU losses.
*Gordon has still scored double-digits in 23 of 27 games this season, including a career-best 27-point effort at Alabama. The soph has been remarkably consistent, notching 15.7 points in home games and 15.9 on the road.
*Gordon owns a piece of program history after recording only the second ‘triple-double' ever by a Bulldog, when he scored 15 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and gave out 10 assists against Vanderbilt last week. Even after his off-day at Georgia the soph still ranks 5th in SEC assists, 6th in scoring, and 8th in rebounding.
*He now stands at 399 career rebounds, most of any active Dog, and 260 career assists.
*The Georgia game was also notable as the first time since December Gordon did not go to the free-throw line. In the preceding nine games he had attempted at least five free shots, and made good on 48-of-61 attempts (78.7%). Guard Gordon has attempted 159 free throws this year; the three Dogs who play center have combined for 174 attempts.
*And even in defeat at UG, Gordon still had a positive assist/turnover rate. He has done so in the last six games, and for the season has 131 assists and 97 turnovers. That's a huge upgrade from his freshman year when he lost the ball 4.7 times per game and led the entire league in turnovers.
*During State's four-game win streak C Charles Rhodes was a consistent force in the middle, shooting over 60% and averaging 20.5 points…the best four-game scoring stretch of his MSU career. Then at Georgia he went 2-of-6 from the field; it was his fewest shots of SEC season and fewest field goals since December 16.
*That Georgia trip knocked Rhodes' season shooting rate down to 56.0% even, sliding his career average down to 10th on the MSU list. He had moved up to 8th and surely will be back up, and down, and off-and-on the top-ten chart through the rest of this season. He still ranks 4th-best among all SEC shooters this season.
*Rhodes now has 789 career points in 71 games, a 11.1 average.
*With two blocked shots at Georgia, Rhodes is up to 75 for his career and 8th on the MSU charts. Next up is the 87 by Marcus Campbell (2000-05).
*The disappointment for this junior season is Rhodes' rebounding, or often the lack of it. After a steady four-game stretch with 23 rebounds in MSU's winning streak, he got to only two misses at Georgia. Rhodes is averaging just 5.7 rebounds in SEC action this season, compared to a 8.4 rate as a sophomore.
*To his credit, though, Rhodes has made the effort to draw fouls in the last month. In the last five games, four of them wins, he was 20-of-27 at the stripe; in the previous nine games he had a total of 29 attempts from the stripe.
*The race to lead State in three-pointers is going down to the wire. Freshman G Barry Stewart's mid-SEC-season slump allowed soph G Reginald Delk to gain some ground, and now the rookie leads his elder only 56 to 53.
*During his four-game freshman slump Stewart was 2-of-16 at the arc. In the last five games he has recovered and made 11-of-19. He went 3-of-5 at Georgia, which tipped the balance in a curious fact about the frosh. In SEC action Stewart is 14-of-31, 45.2%, shooting three-pointers on the road and 13-of-30, 43.3%, in home league games. For the season as a whole Stewart ranks 7th in SEC outside-accuracy.
*Stewart is a good game away from tying or breaking Reginald Delk's freshman MSU record for treys in a season. Delk made 59 as a rookie last year.
*Delk had his best out of the season Saturday when he stuck six treys, in nine tries, at Georgia. That topped his freshman-high of five longballs, at Arkansas, though his season-best 22 points at UG was still behind the 27 he scored on the Razorbacks as a rookie.
*Delk has made good on 13 treys in the last four games, and now has 112 for his MSU career. That ranks him ninth on the MSU list, having just passed Doug Hartsfield (1988-91); next up is the 124 by Antonio Jackson (2000-01).
*Between them twin brothers Reginald and Richard Delk have 78 treys this year; they had 70 together as freshmen.
*Freshman C Jarvis Varnado has seen his playing time diminish through the stretch-run of his first SEC season, as well as with Rhodes getting more minutes and putting up big numbers. Still the rookie has been effective in relief minutes and continues to swat shots. Varnado now has 56 blocks for the year, the third-best such season for a MSU freshman. The rookie-record is 65 by Erick Dampier in 1994.
*Freshman G Ben Hansbrough is being worked into more minutes in the role. In the last seven games the rookie has had 24 assists; he had just three the three preceding contests. Though a backup Hansbrough still stands 5th on the current SEC ranking for assist/turnover rate, far better than starter Gordon.
*State would like for the rookie to draw more fouls. When he gets to the stripe Hansbrough is a 82.3% marksman, best on the team. But he only has 51 attempts which is not enough to be listed by the SEC this week.