*Already the winningest coach in program history, Rick Stansbury can become the first MSU mentor with 200 career victories Saturday.
*State is 2-0 against East teams with wins over Kentucky and Georgia, both at home. Tennessee is 2-0 against West squads having beaten Ole Miss at home and won at Alabama this week.
About the Volunteers: If most coaching seats around the SEC have heated up lately, it's not global warming. Blame the sudden and complete change Bruce Pearl has brought to Tennessee fortunes. A program that hadn't sniffed NCAA play for four years got back on the national stage immediately with 22- and 24-win seasons, as well as the 2006 SEC East title. Of course temperatures are inevitably rising in Knoxville with raised expectations for a squad that specializes in point production. The Volunteers make no pretense about their gameplan of simply out-scoring the opposition. Whatever the lineup, the Vols sneer at shot clocks on offense while playing a reckless brand of ‘defense' that keeps all involved going full-speed in both directions. But who needs chalkboards if you have these sharp-shooters? Chris Lofton's return for a senior year assured Tennessee of continued contender status. Last year's leading SEC scorer isn't pointing at the same 20.8 pace, mostly since his perimeter shooting has dropped five percent. But here in conference season guess who has stepped to the fore, with 22, 27, and 23 points the last three games? Pressuring Lofton on the perimeter is no answer either as he will explode to the goal for two-pointers. So will JaJuan Smith, a bookend in the backcourt to Lofton of matching stature and stats. With 117 treys between them, and counting, this pair has hit for three more often than a couple of conference teams. Not surprisingly Tennessee has attempted more three, 530, than any other SEC squad, which makes up for mid-pack percentage of makes. The three-guard lineup has adjusted somewhat with soph Ramar Smith taking the starting spot of senior Jordan Howell, but it means little because their minutes are almost identical still. In fact ten Vols are averaging ten or more minutes of SEC action; and even Lofton is limited to 30 minutes-per. So there are always fresh legs for the frantic style of full-court play. Purists might cringe at UT's willingness to give up easy baskets on defensive miscues, but it's paying off as the Vols again lead the league in steals. They've 215 thefts in 20 games, right at twice as many thefts as their opponents. Of course the nature of this roster almost forces an end-to-end approach because the Vols don't have the big bodies for a real halfcourt offense. Forwards Tyler (another one) Smith and Wayne Chism have done the dirty work around the bucket but both are happier stepping out of the lane for jumpers. Open ones, which they get in the orange offensive swirl. There is a bit more muscle now that Duke Crews is getting in the swing of things. Still this is not a team likely to win many battles on the boards. Tennessee is also prone to having short shots blocked without much of the same on the other end. And there's another weakness likely to cost them come tournament time. The Vols are mediocre at best on the free throw line and send foes to the stripe even more often so far this SEC campaign. But hey, as long as the longballs are falling and the scoreboard spinning, this is a team capable of running a long, long way come March.
Projected Starting Lineups
TENNESSEE: F Tyler Smith, SO 6-7 215, 13.3ppg, 6.2rpg, 3.7apg, 7 3ptrs; F Wayne Chism, SO 6-9 243, 9.0ppg, 6.1rpg, 23 blks, 14 3ptrs; G Chris Lofton, SR 6-2 200, 15.0ppg, 2.1apg, 66 3ptrs, 36.4% 3fgs; G JaJuan Smith, SR 6-2 195, 14.4ppg, 2.5apg, 51 3ptrs, 40 stls; G Ramar Smith, SO 6-2 200, 8.8ppg, 3.5apg.
Top Alternates: G Jordan Howell, SR 6-3 190, 6.5ppg, 2.8apg, 33 3ptrs; F Duke Crews, SO 6-7 233, 6.5ppg, 4.7rpg; G J.P. Prince, SO 6-7 205, 9.6ppg, 3.4rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Charles Rhodes, SR 6-8 245, 14.6ppg, 56.5%fgs, 7.3rpg, 23 blks; G/F Jamont Gordon, JR 6-4 230, 17.9ppg, 6.2rpg, 4.2apg, 36 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, SO 6-9 210, 7.1ppg, 61.5% fgs, 8.5rpg, 101 blks; G Barry Stewart, SO 6-2 170, 11.8ppg, 4.2rpg, 3.2apg, 31 3ptrs; G Phil Turner, rFR 6-3 170, 5.3ppg, 3.4rpg, 20 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: G Riley Benock, FR 6-4 180, 2.5pg, 14 3ptrs; F/C Brian Johnson, JR 6-9 245, 2.7ppg, 2.8rpg; C Elgin Bailey, FR , 1.9ppg, 1.9rpg.
How They Compare
Scoring: MSU 72.7ppg, UT 84.9ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 62.2ppg, UT 69.3ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 46.5%, UT 46.5%
FG Defense: MSU 36.0%, UT 42.7%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 33.3%, UT 35.8%
3-Point Attempts: MSU 21.2pg, UT 26.5pg
Rebounding: MSU 41.5rpg, UT 37.3rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU +6.0, UT -0.9
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 60.7%, UT 64.6%
Free Throw Attempts: MSU 20.6pg, UT 24.6pg
Assists: MSU 13.5pg, UT 19.9pg
Turnover Ratio: MSU -1.9 , UT +7.4
The Series: Tennessee holds a commanding 72-38 lead in a series dating back to 1924 but which did not become annual until the 1940s. The Volunteers have dominated for long stretches, winning 21 of 23 games from 1939-55 and 19 of 22 from 1967-77. And while Mississippi State cut into that lead in the 1990s, Tennessee has been better in the current decade with six wins in the last eight meetings and the last three-straight. However, State does have a 26-24 lead in games played in Starkville, 13 of those wins in Humphrey Coliseum. The programs have met eight times in SEC Tournaments but only thrice in the modern event, all in the 1990s with State taking the 1994 and '99 games for their only such successes. Rick Stansbury is 4-6 against Tennessee, while Bruce Pearl is 2-0 against State.
Bulldog Notes: Despite giving up 78 points Wednesday night, the Bulldogs remain the SEC's preeminent defensive squad. They lead the league in (all games counted): scoring defense at 62.2 points; shooting at 36.0%; and blocked shots at 8.65 per game.
*Yet State's defensive numbers from conference play are even more impressive. The Dogs lead in scoring defense (59.0) by seven points over Georgia; in shooting defense at 33.1% compared to #2 Arkansas' 39.4%; and by a nearly two-to-one margin in blocked shots, 60 to Alabama's 31.
*When Arkansas went 9-of-24 from their own arcs it inspired State fans to recite conventional wisdom that MSU ‘always' gives up lots of three-pointers. Actually, foes have only hit 27 treys and 24.8% of their long shots, and the Dogs still rank 2nd in SEC three-point defense.
*Of course State has some obvious weak points, too. They rank dead-last in the league (SEC games only) in turnover margin, are 11th in assist/turnover ratio, and 11th in free-throw shooting. Then again, that latter is progress as for a month the Bulldogs were 12th at the foul-line.
*It's SEC season and Jamont Gordon is again stepping to the fore for State. In his last four games the senior G/F has scored 24 points three times, and in six league games he has averaged 18.8 points. His current all-season pace of 17.9 points is the best by a Bulldog since Darryl Wilson averaged 18.0 in 1996.
*Gordon has scored double-digits in 19 of his 20 games this year, and 76 of his 85 career games.
*The scoring is impressive enough; Gordon's accuracy in January was even more so. After shooting 43% in the first 14 games Gordon has been good 50.6% of his shot in SEC competition.
*And his long-range touch has been even better of late. Gordon was stuck in a five-game shooting slump where he was just 2-of-16 at the arc; but in the last four contests he has been good on 14-of-29 trey-tries.
*Gordon has 15 three-pointers in SEC play, as many as the next two-best Bulldogs combined.
*Gordon became the eleventh Bulldog with 100 career three-pointers and now has 105 in three seasons.
*Gordon now stands 10th on the MSU career scoring list with 1,332 points. It will take a while to reach 9th place, held now by Cameron Burns (1,460, 1989-91).
*Of those point, 333 have come at the foul-line or exactly 25% of his total.
*But his name is higher on the career-assists chart with an even 400 now, ranking Gordon 5th in program history.
*With 102 career steals he needs 122 to achieve top-ten status.
*And Gordon is 18th in career rebounding with 576, with Terry Kusnierz (592, 1972-74) just ahead.
*Gordon is still the only State starter not to foul out of a game this year, despite averaging just under 33 minutes a game overall and 34.5 minutes in SEC play.
*Opponents are adjusting, or trying to, their offenses to allow for C Jarvis Varnado's presence around the basket. After blocking 27 shots in the first three SEC games, the soph has swatted ‘only' eight in the last three. Still Varnado was able to get a hand on four Arkansas shots, giving him 101 blocks for this season and making him only the second Bulldog with 100 rejections in a season.
*And with five more blocks this year Varnado will match Erick Dampier's 1996 program record of 106. Varnado broke Dampier's 1994 freshman record last year with 67 blocks.
*Even with the swat-pace slowing Varnado still has a good grip on first place in the SEC, both all-season and league-games.
*Not fully two years into his career, Varnado is closing in on 3rd place in MSU blocks. He has 168, trailing the 183 of Kalpatrick Wells (1980-83). Dampier holds the career record with 249 blocks in three years, a mark Varnado is well on pace to smash by the time he is a MSU senior.
*Three times this year, twice in SEC play, Varnado has blocked ten balls to set the school record (against Miami Fla.) and then tie (Georgia, Kentucky) his own mark. Varnado has blocked a shot in 48 of 55 career games and two or more balls in 34 games.
*The last time he got ten blocks also gave Varnado only the third ‘triple-double' in MSU records. He also had ten points and a dozen rebounds against Kentucky. Varnado joined teammate Jamont Gordon (2006-07) and Lawrence Roberts (2004-05) as Bulldogs with a triple-double game, though those other two did it with double-digit assists instead of blocks.
*Looking at the stats might seem to say Varnado should shoot more often. Actually the soph center has thrived on offense by picking his shots and spots wisely. He is 19-of-30 in SEC play, 63.3% accuracy. For the whole season, only four times has Varnado been under break-even from the field.
*However, because Varnado has taken under five-shots per game he doesn't quite meet the SEC minimum of 5.0-per to qualify for ranking in shooting average. He would rank 4th in the league in shooting otherwise.
*During his team's nine-game winning streak Varnado matched 85 total points with 85 rebounds, a 9.4-average in both. When State was just 5-5, the soph center was averaging 5.6 points and 7.9 boards.
*Where Varnado has really upped his production as a starter is on the backboards. His 8.5 rebound average so far this year is more than double the 4.2 boards he notched as a freshman off the bench. And he's been even better since SEC season began with a 9.7 average, third-best in the league.
*Of course Varnado's struggles at the charity-stripe are well-known, and he's a better marksman from the floor than the line where he has shot 43.6% for the season (47.3% SEC). But he has made five of his last six tries so maybe Varnado is finding that range, too.
*F/C Charles Rhodes scored his fifth ‘double-double' of the season Wednesday with 11 points and 15 rebounds at Arkansas. It was his first D-D since the December 21 ankle injury. Rhodes had six double-doubles in his previous three seasons.
*Those 15 rebounds were a season-high, though not near his career mark of 19 against Auburn as a sophomore. In the preceding game Rhodes just missed matching a career scoring high of 27 (Georgia 2006) when he had 26 points against Ole Miss.
*In that Ole Miss game Rhodes was good on 12 of 14 shots, a personal standard. Though, in the two games ‘around' that contest he is 6-of-18 shooting. Still Rhodes boasts a career accuracy of 56.13%; that leaves him just outside the MSU top-ten behind the 56.27% of Robert Jackson (1999-01). Rhodes has been swapping places with Jackson for 10th spot the last two years.
*The ankle injury, and re-injurings since, have hampered Rhodes in some games and he's only scored double-digits in three of the five outings since returning. But he's kept battling on the boards and in the last three games has 30 rebounds; the first two SEC games back he had six total boards.
*Rhodes is just about to crack the career top-20 in scoring. He is 21st with 1,162 points, just behind the 1,168 of Markell Patterson (1999-02).
*Through his first three years Rhodes was a 71% free-throw shooter. As a senior he is 39-of-67, or 58.2%.
*Rhodes is 6th in career blocked shots with 125.
*January wasn't much fun for either of State's sophomore guards. Ben Hansbrough has missed three of the last four games with either injury or illness and at last report was doubtful for this weekend. Classmate Barry Stewart has played but is struggling with his shooting, and bruised a thigh Wednesday evening. He will play tomorrow.
*Stewart was 5-of-30 at the three-point arc in January, 4-of-25 in SEC games. This after he shot 41.2% in SEC games on treys as a freshman, making 28-of-68 which was better than his all-season average.
*Since making 3-of-5 in the Alabama game Stewart is 0-of-6 in two games, leaving him still one trey short of becoming the 12th Bulldogs with 100 career three-balls.
*For the year, Stewart is a 28.3% shooter on three-pointers on the home court; and 36.4% in road games.
*While his shooting has slipped, Stewart has contributed to the offense by getting the ball to scorers. He has 18 assists in SEC play, and he averaged 3.8 scoring passes in State's winning streak.
*And it's Stewart, not Gordon, who picked more passes in the winning-stretch, with 13 steals to 10.
*For his part Hansbrough is awaiting clearance to play after missing a couple of games with mononucleosis. This, after he came back from a broken finger to score nine points on three treys at Alabama in relief work.
*Hansbrough has also seen his outside accuracy slip since going from freshman sub to sophomore starter. Last year he was a 41.2% outside marksman for the year, 42.0% in SEC games. This year he's been good on 34.7% of trey-tries for the year. But, before his injury Hansbrough had shot 45.6% on all attempts during State's winning streak.
*Hansbrough continues one freshman trend; he's the most reliable free throw man on the team, at 74.3% this year, yet he doesn't get to the stripe often enough to be ranked by the SEC in that category. He had taken four stripe-shots in his last four games.
*Hansbrough's assist/turnover rate is almost 2-to-1, at 45 scoring passes to 24 giveaways.
*Maybe the ‘new' has worn off with G Phil Turner, who for a stretch was giving State a third (or when Hansbrough was out a second) perimeter threat. Now in the last three games the redshirt freshman is 3-of-16 shooting. Curiously, though, all his makes have been long-range; he's missed all five shots inside the arc in these games.
*But when State beat Georgia and Kentucky, Turner had 18 total points.
*Still Turner hasn't let offensive issues impact his other efforts. The 170-pound guard has recovered 4.5 rebounds per SEC game.
*State has tried to develop more depth in the last month, and injuries have sidelined a couple of starters at times. Yet still four of the six Dogs who have started a SEC game are averaging over 30 minutes of action.