*The MSU Bulldogs are 6-2 at home and have won their only SEC home contest, beating Georgia 60-49 over the weekend. Kentucky is 0-3 in all road and neutral-site games.
About the Wildcats: Perhaps the apocalypse isn't upon us, or at least Lexington, after all. After finishing pre-conference play with worse than a .500 record for the first time since January 1989, things look to be turning for the better with Kentucky. A gutsy double-overtime home win over ranked Vanderbilt is just one game but still a pretty fair indicator. And given the parlous state of SEC affairs, it's not at all impossible Billy Gillispie's first UK team doesn't manage to emerge atop the Eastern Division by March. If everybody gets and stays healthy, that is. The Wildcat struggles that produced a 6-7 record going into league season aren't any mystery; not when eleven different fivesomes took tipoff in the first dozen games and the most frequent starter was a former walk-on. Injuries meant rotations were as erratic as the starting lineups with an obvious toll on performance; witness the utterly out-of-character rate Kentucky has been turning the ball over this year. But that's not to belittle the all-around efforts of guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, who have had to force a few things while the frontcourt settles down. The senior tandem provides 31 points nightly, distributes well, hits most of the team's three-balls, and chases down loose rebounds. Oh, and don't even think about sending them to the foul stripe. They've put in more minutes with a pair of soph guards hampered by injuries. Off-season knee surgery meant Derrick Jasper missed the first ten games, and against Vanderbilt he strained a ligament and is uncertain for this game. Michael Porter missed the Vandy start with a back problem. The Wildcats have younger faces on the front line, one of them among the best frosh anywhere. Patrick Patterson has been instant aid around the basket and is already the team's top scorer, shooter, and rebounder alike. He also sets the pace in blocks, not that Kentucky swats a lot of shots so far. Former walk-on Mark Coury provides more bulk in the lane. Guard Jodie Meeks had four starts and was averaging almost 11 points before a stress fracture and now has a hip flexor making him questionable too. This has not been a bombs-away bunch though Bradley is good on 43% of his three-point tries, but that pace might pick up if some guys get off the injured list. This would also let the Wildcats be more aggressive, and effective, on defense. Come to think of it, the best sign of UK's struggles this year is the unthinkable (to SEC long-timers) disparity in foul shots taken; 293 for the Kats, 381 for opponents. Oh, but wait, league play is underway and Kentucky shot 36 freebies to 25 for Vanderbilt. So maybe the basketball world isn't coming to an end just yet.
Projected Starting Lineups
KENTUCKY: F Ramon Harris, SO 6-7 215, 4.4ppg, 3.9rpg; F Mark Coury, SO 6-8 230, 3.3ppg, 2.9rpg; F Patrick Patterson, FR 6-9 220, 17.2ppg, 8.4rpg, 19 blks; G Joe Crawford, SR 6-5 220, 16.1ppg, 3.6rpg, 2.4apg, 22 3ptrs; G Ramel Bradley, SR 6-2 199, 15.2ppg, 3.2apg, 29 ptrs.
Top Alternates: C Perry Stevenson, SO 6-9 192, 3.9ppg, 3.5rpg; F Derrick Jasper, SO 6-6 213, 4.0ppg, 6.5rpg, 56% fgs; G Michael Porter, SO 6-2 190, 2.7ppg, 1.8rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: G/F Jamont Gordon, JR 6-4 230, 17.1ppg, 6.5rpg, 4.2apg, 22 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, SO 6-9 210, 7.2ppg, 8.5rpg, 83 blks; G Ben Hansbrough, SO 6-3 205, 9.8ppg, 3.9rpg, 2.8apg, 30 3ptrs; G Barry Stewart, SO 6-2 170, 11.9ppg, 4.6rpg, 3.3apg, 28 3ptrs; G Phil Turner, rFR 6-3 170, 5.4ppg, 3.3rpg, 14 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: G Ravern Johnson, FR 6-7 175, 3.0ppg, 1.1rpg; F/C Brian Johnson, JR 6-9 245, 2.9ppg, 2.8rpg; G Riley Benock, 6-4 180, 2.3ppg, 1.0rpg; F/C Charles Rhodes, SR 6-8 245, 15.0ppg, 56.2%fgs, 7.0rpg, 18 blks.
How They Compare
Scoring: MSU 73.2ppg, UK 72.9ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 61.1ppg, UK 65.9ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 46.3%, UK 47.9%
FG Defense: MSU 35.4%, UK 38.0%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 32.0%, UK 36.1%
3-Point Attempts: MSU 21.1pg, UK 17.2pg
Rebounding: MSU 42.6rpg, UK 35.1rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU +7.0, UK +3.6
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 61.8%, UK 74.7%
Free Throw Attempts: MSU 20.6pg, UK 20.9pg
Assists: MSU 14.0pg, UK 13.8pg
Turnover Ratio: MSU -1.6, UK -2.1
The Series: This series pre-dates the SEC era with first meeting back in 1921 in the old Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament. Kentucky won that game and has dominated since with a 84-18 lead. That includes a 30-11 margin in Starkville games. Though, eight of those Bulldog home wins have come since Humphrey Coliseum opened for 1975-76. Kentucky has still won their last two trips to Starkville. The last time the squads met was in Atlanta in the 2006 SEC Tournament with State winning in overtime 84-82. Rick Stansbury is 2-9 against his home-state school.
Bulldog Notes: Mississippi State made the calendar ‘turn' as one of the SEC's better defensive teams. After two league wins the Bulldogs might be the best conference club on the D, having allowed LSU 39 points and Georgia 49. Lowly Lafayette College did better than that against MSU with 53 points.
*In State's current six-win streak all victories have come by double-digit margins.
*But there is no need to categorize MSU's field-goal defense, which ranks first by-far in the conference both for league games (22.9%) and all-season (35.4%). And that field-goal defense is also best in the NCAA's latest stats, by a sliver of a point over Georgetown. In their six-game win streak the Dogs have allowed 30.8% shooting.
*And Mississippi State is by far the league-leader in blocking shots with 8.63 per-game. More meaningful maybe is that State has blocked 138 shots; opponents have swatted just 42 MSU attempts, better than a 3-to-1 contrast.
*G Jamont Gordon was the lone Dog in double-digits scoring against Georgia. This means the junior has scored ten or more markers in 72 of his 81 college games. Only once this year, at South Alabama (7 points) has Gordon failed to reach double-figures.
*Gordon has put up 12 or more field goal attempts in 14 of the 16 games this season. The rest of the Bulldog roster combined has fired up double-digit attempts 19 total times. Gordon's 19 shots taken against Lafayette College matched his season-high (19 against Miami Fl.). Gordon is taking almost one-quarter of his team's attempts.
*The junior's field-goal accuracy in State's six-win streak is 45.8% compared to 41.5% in the previous 10 games. Yet in the last five games Gordon has made just 2-of-16 from the three-point arc.
*Gordon's passing pace has also fallen off, reflecting that the ‘guard' is spending more time nearer the basket on offense lately. He has just three assists in two SEC wins, and four blocked shots with 15 rebounds.
*In the last four games Gordon has 15 assists and 16 turnovers.
*Gordon still has 383 career assists, 5th-most in MSU history. He needs 413 to tie for 4th with Doug Hartsfield (1988-91).
*Having joined the 1,000-Point Club earlier this year, Gordon is flying up the career scoring list. He now has 1,247 points in 81 games, and just passed Jerry Graves (1959-61) by a basket for 14th place on the MSU list. Next-ahead is Jack Bouldin (1,257, 1970-72). Top-ten status isn't all that far away now with 1,307 points the threshold.
*Gordon has grabbed 30 rebounds in the last four games, giving him 558 career boards. He needs 564 to tie Gary Hooker (1976-78) for 20th place in MSU annals.
*Gordon is the only State starter who hasn't fouled-out of a game this year.
*Sophomore C Jarvis Varnado may only weigh 210 or so pounds, but he's definitely the big Dog in the lane these days. Varnado barely missed becoming only the third MSU player with a triple-double day when he scored nine points with nine rebounds and ten blocked shots against Georgia. One marker or board more would have given Varnado a third-straight double-double…after he only got his career first d-d two games ago.
*It's no coincidence that Varnado's contributions have surged at the same time State has won six-straight games. In this stretch he has averaged 9.8 points and 11.5 rebounds. In the preceding 10 games he averaged 5.6 points and 7.9 rebounds.
*Yet Varnado has become a scoring threat without forcing anything offensive. He has taken only 26 shots in the last four games…and made 19 of them, 73.1%! For the year Varnado is a 61.7% shooter, best on the roster, and only four games has been under break-even. Though, he attempts only about five shots per contest.
*In the Georgia game Varnado did not miss a free throw. Of course he only tried one, and has just 37 attempts all season. (Gordon has been to the stripe 79 times for comparison.) In the win streak Varnado is 11-of-24 on charity chances; he's 40.5% for the year.
*But few will complain about the occasional missed foul-shot, because Varnado more than makes up for it on the other end of the court denying baskets. He is the SEC's shot-blocking beast with 83 swats already, 5.2 per game, and leads the NCAA as of now. In fact, Varnado had more blocks in the first 15 games of this sophomore season than he did in 35 freshman games, 67, which set a class-MSU record.
*The ten blocks in the Georgia win matched Varnado's ten rejections against Miami Fl., which is the MSU game-record.
*Varnado has blocked a shot in 45 of 51 career games, and blocked two or more balls in 31 games.
*Only a year-and-a-half on the job, Varnado already ranks 5th on the career list with 150 blocks. He's closing in fast on 4th-place Rickey Brown (163, 1977-80). The career record is 249 by Erick Dampier (1994-96) in three years.
*The season blocks record also belongs to Dampier, 106 as a 1996 senior. Varnado is obviously on a pace to swat away that mark.
*Where Varnado has made another ‘jump' this year is in rebounding. After averaging 4.2 boards as a rookie, he is getting 8.6 rebounds midway of the soph season. Varnado had 146 rebounds all last year; he has 138 in 16 games this season.
*Senior F/C Charles Rhodes returned from a three-game absence for an ankle injury to play a dozen minutes against Georgia, with eights points and three rebounds. He also blocked a couple of shots, then re-turned the ankle in the second half.
*Before his ankle injury, senior F Charles Rhodes had scored double-digits in seven-straight games with a season-high 26 in the last outing. In this stretch Rhodes was shooting 61% with just one sub-break even outing. That wasn't far off his 68% free-throw shooting in this same span.
*Rhodes needs eight more points to move into the career top-25 in scoring. He is at 1,108 after 92 career games. Red Stroud (1961-63) had 1,116 points for the #25 spot.
*The injury-limited minutes Saturday kept Rhodes from maintaining his season pace of getting at least five rebounds every contest. He's had four double-digit efforts on the glass this year.
*In his first three seasons Rhodes posted six double-doubles; he has four of them this year already.
*Rhodes picked his shots well in the comeback game, making 4-of-5. In the three games before his injury he had made 21-of-35 shots. That bumps his career accuracy to 56.1%, still tenth-best in MSU records.
*But his senior-year free-throw shooting is just 58.5% so far, compared to his 70.7% rate of the previous three years.
*The two blocks Saturday put Rhodes alone in 6th place on the career list with 119, two ahead of Wiley Peck (1976-79).
*One-third of Rhodes' career baskets have come on dunks.
*And he has not attempted a three-point basket since putting up two (missed) against UC-Irvine back on November 22.
*Despite a broken bone in the left (non-shooting) hand early in the game, G Ben Hansbrough was still able to make a trey against Georgia. That gives the sophomore 30 threes for the season, most on the team and two-ahead of classmate Barry Stewart who was oh-for-the-stripe Saturday. They have 58 of the team's 108 treys.
*If Hansbrough has the season-lead, Stewart is still ahead for their short careers 96 to 77.
*The Georgia game snapped a string of 12 contests where Stewart made at least one longball. And he is 2-of-14 from the arc the last three games. But he is one big day away from becoming the 11th Bulldog with 100 threeballs; and with 111 he will match Doug Hartsfield (1988-91) for tenth-place on the career chart.
*It's still early enough in the year that averages can swing wildly with just one game. Still, going 0-of-5 at the arc Saturday means Stewart is shooting 34.1% on trey-tries on the home court, 35.1% away from The Hump.
*Stewart has nine treys and is 31.0% at the arc in State's winning streak; Hansbrough has made 11 and is 36.8%.
*As State has gone ‘small' with the lineup, Stewart has found himself out on the point with the ball more often. He's used the situation to become a productive passer, with 26 assists in the last seven games. In the same span nominal ‘point guard' Gordon has 23 assists.
*And Stewart is actually the team's leader in court-time. His 34.0 minutes this season compares to the 24 he averaged off-the-bench as a freshman. Older Dog Gordon is getting 32.6 minutes.
*Hansbrough continues a freshman trend; he's the most reliable free throw man on the team, at 79% this year, yet he doesn't get to the stripe often enough to be ranked by the SEC in that category. He has taken two stripe-shots in the last three games.
*Yet, Hansbrough has been going into the taller timber often of late. In the last four games he has 27 rebounds, and has raised his season-average to 4.0. Last year he notched 2.8 boards per-game. His eight rebounds against home-state squad Missouri was a career-best.
*And Hansbrough's assist/turnover rate is almost 2-to-1, at 45 scoring passes to 23 giveawys.
*Moving into the starting lineup has allowed redshirt freshman Phil Turner to show more of his stuff, and stuffs. While he hasn't scored as well the last three games, 19 points, as he did in a stretch from Dec. 12-30 when he had 45 points in four games, Turner has expanded his contributions. Most notably to rebounding with 30 boards in the last four games. His nine rebounds against Georgia matched the team-high.
*And the 6-3 guard has blocked two shots in two of the last three wins.
*Turner has also made up for lost time by playing 34 and 37 minutes in SEC action.
*Turner has a dozen steals in the winning streak; no teammate is in double-digits.
*The six Dogs who have started a game this year have accounted for 82% of the minutes-played.