So even with over half a SEC slate left for everyone involved, it's still a critical contest for the Bulldogs and Volunteers in regular-season context. Post-season, too, particularly for a State team that had vaulted from NCAA obscurity in mid-December into legitimate contention for consideration. A nine-game winning streak and five conference conquests also had the Dogs ranked #25 in one poll and just a step outside in the other. That was, before a 78-58 loss Wednesday night at Arkansas.
The setback cost State more than a streak, it chopped the West lead in half over the 4-2 Razorbacks. Still as Coach Rick Stansbury said all during the success-stretch, each game was just one win in a long SEC season. So that was just one loss with lots of schedule still in store before somebody arrives in Atlanta as Division—and potentially overall SEC—champions.
Tennessee has been the favorite all along to take the 2008 conference crown. Only a six-point loss at Kentucky mars their SEC mark so far and since then the Volunteers have beaten both Georgia and Alabama. The latter win, Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa, showed both the strengths and weaknesses of Coach Bruce Pearl's squad. The Vols can run, shoot, and score with anyone, and usually have to when giving up plenty points themselves. With 18 wins in 20 games, including probably the ‘best' SEC triumph of this non-conference season over Ohio State, Tennessee has made the formula work.
"It's obvious we're getting ready to play not just one of the better teams in the league, (but) one of the better teams in the country," Stansbury said this morning. "Bruce has done a great job blending in some new players with the returning players."
Headlining those veteran Vols of course is Chris Lofton, the senior-sharpshooter and top three-point threat in the league if not the land. Lofton opted for a final college campaign and for a while it looked like a shaky choice as his current scoring average is down five points from the 20.8 he rang up as a junior. But in the last three games Lofton has been, well, Lofton, scoring 22, 27, and 23 points. "Lofton seems to be doing what he does best again," said Stansbury.
It's not a one-gun show either. Classmate JaJuan Smith is providing 14.4 points-per and has struck for 51 three-pointers compared to Lofton's 66. They are almost identical physically, even, true bookends in an all-court attack. "JaJuan is probably one of the most valuable pieces they have," Stansbury said. "He does a little bit of everything, he handles, shoots, passes, and he's one of their better perimeter defenders."
Not that normal defense is a Tennessee priority, as the Vols give up almost 70 points a game. Their specialty is forcing the pace of play on both ends, shooting quickly and pressuring aggressively. It might give up some cheap points but also produces the best turnover rate in the league by a sizable margin. That's naturally a subject of concern for Mississippi State at the moment after, to a large extent, throwing away the Arkansas game on turnovers. Lots of turnovers.
Tennessee has been giving ten players double-digit minutes through six SEC games, so they can maintain the pace. Mississippi State by contrast has been forced to play four Dogs at east 30-minutes per SEC game, partly because the bench is loaded with young pups. And partly by injuries this month. Only one Dog is expected to miss the Tennessee game as starting guard Ben Hansbrough is still likely sidelined by mononucleosis. Stansbury would not definitely rule the soph shooter out for the weekend, but his comment "We'll re-evaluate next Monday just to see where he stands" certainly implies it.
Otherwise State should be healthy Saturday. Starting guard Barry Stewart did bruise a thigh Wednesday but shouldn't be slowed.
The weekend also finds Stansbury attempting to become the first State hardwood coach to win 200 career games. He is 199-110 in ten seasons. It's another sideline aspect to a Groundhog Day duel of Dogs and Vols, where neither intends to leave shadowed by a defeat.