About the Tigers: Maybe it's tempting to spare some sympathy for a Tiger team that's been through the proverbial wringer this season. But be careful as however limited the roster, however disparate the stats, this team is quite capable of taking a big bite from an unwary conference contender. And kudos to Jeff Lebo for keeping his club together, or at least those who haven't been removed by injuries. It's a pretty bitter irony of course because all seven starters and a total of 13 lettermen were to be back this year; instead Lebo has patched and wired together as best a lineup from available parts each evening and soldiered on. The big blow came ten games into the campaign when top rebounder, shot-blocker, 72% shooter and 14-point scorer Korvotney Barber went down. A small team has only gotten smaller since, with Auburn relying wholly a four-guard lineup. The ‘big' man is 6-8 forward Quan Prowell, who himself missed some early-season games. The senior has tried to carry the inside load and done reasonably well by shooting 55% and getting to six boards-per. Prowell will still drift far from the lane, though, and can stick the three if left open. In fact every Tiger can and will fire away at the arc; only Tennessee and Vanderbilt have pumped up more trey-tries during SEC season. Of course Auburn also gives up a lot ‘o longballs, more than they make usually. Prowell is the consistent scorer but guard and fellow senior Frank Tolbert is the one to watch, capable of big outbursts such as his 29 points in an upset of Ole Miss and 32 against Vanderbilt. He's also shooting 50% from the floor in SEC play. The backcourt has to help out on the boards, such as Quantez Robinson's five rebounds-per night; yet still race beyond the arc to fire away. To an extent it's working as Auburn handles the ball efficiently and limits the turnovers. The Tigers even keep up some perimeter defensive pressure forcing giveaways for the cheap points this team needs. Still lack of size and muscle shows in the lack of blocked shots (MSU's Jarvis Varnado has more than the whole Tiger team) and bad rebounding margins. And maybe it's the fact that five guys put in 30 or more minutes which means a team too tired to defend well down the stretch. This is the only squad allowing over 50% overall shooting in SEC season.
Projected Starting Lineups
AUBURN: F Quan Prowell, SR 6-8 215, 14.4ppg, 6.4rpg, 16 3ptrs; G Frank Tolbert, SR 6-4 210, 12.5ppg, 5.3rpg, 19 3ptrs; G Rasheem Barrett, JR 6-5 220, 13.4ppg, 4.1rpg, 31 3ptrs; G Quantez Robertson, JR 6-3 193, 7.3ppg, 5.0rpg, 23 3ptrs; G DeWayne Reed, SO 6-1 175, 9.5ppg, 3.0rpg, 4.0rpg, 30 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: F Lucas Hargrove, SO 6-6 188, 7.1ppg, 4.0rpg, 16 3ptrs; F Matt Heramb, SO 6-9 225, 3.4ppg, 1.5rpg, 7 3ptrs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Charles Rhodes, SR 6-8 245, 14.8ppg, 56.0%fgs, 7.5rpg, 30 blks; G/F Jamont Gordon, JR 6-4 230, 17.8ppg, 6.0rpg, 4.5apg, 40 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, SO 6-9 210, 7.0ppg, 61.9% fgs, 8.0rpg, 105 blks; G Barry Stewart, SO 6-2 170, 12.2ppg, 4.3rpg, 3.0apg, 40 3ptrs; G Phil Turner, rFR 6-3 170, 5.1ppg, 3.5rpg, 21 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: G Ben Hansbrough, SO , 9.7ppg, 3.6rpg, 2.6apg, 35 3ptrs; F/C Brian Johnson, JR 6-9 245, 2.6ppg, 2.7rpg; C Elgin Bailey, FR , 1.9ppg, 2.1rpg.
How They Compare
Scoring: MSU 72.6ppg, AUB 70.9ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 63.0ppg, AUB 70.0ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 46.5%, AUB 47.6%
FG Defense: MSU 36.3%, AUB 46.1%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 33.8%, UAB 34.7%
3-Point Attempts: MSU 21.1pg, AUB 20.5pg
Rebounding: MSU 41.0rpg, AUB 33.2rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU +5.1, AUB +0.9
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 60.9%, AUB 64.6%
Free Throw Attempts: MSU 21.0pg, AUB 17.9pg
Assists: MSU 13.5pg, AUB 14.9pg
Turnover Ratio: MSU -2.1, AUB +0.3
The Series: Auburn holds a 67-60 lead in a series that has seen dominating stretches for both sides. As recently as 1997-2001 the Tigers were on a tear with nine-straight wins; then the Bulldogs took charge from 2001-2005 with eight consecutive wins of their own. And after a couple of split-seasons, State swept the set last winter; 87-76 at Starkville and 91-83 at Auburn, which trimmed AU's lead on their home court to 40-21. That also gave Rick Stansbury a 11-7 score against Auburn, while Jeff Lebo is 2-4 against State.
Bulldog Notes: A couple of losses in one week took some luster off State's defensive reputation and statistics, but a 73-66 win over Alabama showed the Bulldogs are back on that track. They are first in all-season scoring defense (63.0ppg), in shooting defense (36.3%), and in blocked shots (188, or 8.6 per game).
*At one point the Dogs were also the league's best team at defending the arc, having allowed just 18 treys in five SEC wins. Then Arkansas and Tennessee combined for 21 long-makes in one week. State is still third-best in three-point defense at 31.5%, which matters because opponents are heaving up almost 20 long shots a game against MSU rather than challenge inside.
*In beating Alabama, the Dogs also won a matchup of the SEC's worst free-throw shooting squads by making 15-of-22 charity chances. The Tide was 9-of-17.
*It's not lack of live practice keeping State from being better on the line, as only Tennessee has attempted more free throws than the Dogs in conference play; 187 to 169. In fact, State has made more free throws in eight SEC games than South Carolina has shot in seven, 99 to 87.
*G/F Jamont Gordon's third SEC season got off to a slow start with 18 points on 11-of-23 shooting against LSU and Georgia. Since then the junior has stepped to the fore, averaging 19.8 points in six games and shooting 48% overall.
*Gordon's current season-scoring pace of 17.8 points is the best by a Bulldog since Darry Wilson averaged 18.0 in 1995-96.
*Gordon has scored double-digits in 21 of his 22 games this year, and 78 of his 87 career games.
*Gordon became the eleventh Bulldog with 100 career three-pointers and now has 109 in three seasons. After going 0-of-4 against Alabama he needs two more to tie Doug Hartsfield (111, 1988-91) for 10th place.
*Gordon now stands 10th on the MSU career scoring list with 1,366 points. It will take a couple more weeks' work to reach 9th place, held now by Cameron Burns (1,460, 1989-91).
*Just over one-fourth of Gordon's career points have come on free throws, 345. He's made the fifth-most free pitches ever by a Bulldog.
*And he just moved another rung up the career assists ladder. With ten scoring passes in his last game, Gordon surpassed Hartsfield's 413 for fourth place now with 416. Next-up is the 454 by Chuck Evans (1992-93), though Chuckie got all his in just two seasons.
*Gordon has made up for just one assist at Arkansas with 16 in the last two games. *With 105 career steals he needs 17 more to achieve top-ten status.
*And Gordon is 18th in career rebounding with 585, with Terry Kusnierz (592, 1972-74) just ahead. Though, with the emergence of Varnado and the surge by Charles Rhodes, Gordon doesn't have to attack the boards as in the previous two years.
*Gordon is still the only State starter not to foul out of a game this year, despite averaging 33.3 minutes on the floor.
*F/C Charles Rhodes is back to his beastly ways on both ends of the floor. After missing three games, and taking three more to get back to speed with a bad ankle, the senior has had four huge games to average 17.3 points and 10.0 rebounds. In fact he's had two double-double games and Wednesday was a single board short of making it three-straight D-Ds.
*In his first three seasons Rhodes had six double-doubles; this senior year he has posted seven.
*Rhodes 15 rebounds at Arkansas were a season-high, though not near his career mark of 19 against Auburn as a sophomore. And Rhodes just missed matching a career scoring high of 27 (Georgia 2006) when he had 26 points against Ole Miss.
*With two months of college basketball left, Rhodes now stands 20th in career scoring with 1,194 points. He's just a few made shots for surpassing the 1,199 of Mario Austin (2001-03) for the next rung.
*After going 12-of-14 in the Ole Miss win, Rhodes' shooting has slipped somewhat and now stands at 56.1% for the season. That's right on his career pace in fact, which is 56.04% and ranks 11th in State history. Rhodes has been swapping places on that chart with Robert Jackson (56.27% for two seasons now.
*And Rhodes loves playing for, and to, the home crowd. This year he is a 61% shooter in Humphrey Coliseum, compared to 49% in road or neutral games. The difference in home SEC games is even greater as Rhodes has shot 66.7% in The Hump against league foes; 33.3% in three SEC road games!
*Rhodes is 6th in career blocked shots with 132. Ten have come in the last three games as opponents challenge his side of the rim more often than Varnado's.
*So, are opponents getting a ‘read' on Varnado? Certainly they seem to be taking fewer chances with shots near the basket that the soph center might swat. After blocking 27 balls in the first three SEC games, he has 12 blocks in the last five games.
*Still Varnado remains the runaway league-leader in blocks with 105 for the season. By comparison he has more than doubled the 52 of the #2 man on the SEC chart this week.
*He is only the second Bulldogs with 100 blocks in a year, and now is on the verge of matching—then passing--the season record set in 1996 by Erick Dampier with 106. Last year Varnado broke Dampier's freshman-season mark with 67 blocks.
*Not fully two years into his career, Varnado is closing in on 3rd place in MSU blocks. He has 172, 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 50 of 57 career games and two or more balls in 36 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.
*Varnado's rebounding pace has slowed, in proportion to Rhodes' rise of course. After snaring 52 boards in the first five SEC games, Varnado has collected just 13 the last three contests. Still, his 8.1 average is best of any Dog in SEC season, as is his whole-year rate of 8.0. And either shows how far Varnado has come from a freshman average of 4.2 boards.
*Varnado is entirely comfortable sticking to defense and rebounding. But when he takes a shot there's a good chance—61.9% to be precise—that Varnado scores. And in eight SEC games the soph is a 25-of-39 shooter, a remarkable 64.1%.
*But you won't find his name on SEC accuracy lists because at 4.8 shots per-game he doesn't meet the league minimum of 5.0. Varnado would rank 4th this week if he qualified. Only four times this season has he been less than break-even from the floor.
*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 42.4% for the season (44.4% SEC). But he has made five of his last six tries so maybe Varnado is finding that range, too.
*G Barry Stewart appears to have put a tough month behind him. The sophomore slumped to shooting just 4-of-25 at the arc in January SEC action, after making 38% in pre-league play. But in two February games Stewart has connected on 9-of-16 three-point attempts.
*Certainly Stewart showed he can shoot in the SEC as a rookie when he hit 41.2% in league play; better even than his all-season rate.
*Stewart now has 108 longballs for his college career, just one behind Gordon on the active-list and 12th all-time. Both are closing in on top-ten status, 111.
*Compared to his 108 career treys, Stewart has made just 129 free throws.
*In the Alabama win, Stewart got only his third block of the season and the first since November. The 6-2 guard blocked five balls all his freshman year.
*Stewart has been a bit more accurate from long range on hostile or neutral courts, 36.4%, to his 34.8% rate at The Hump. And more oddly, he's been a 42% shooter on trey-tries in MSU losses compared to 32% in wins.
*Twice this season G Ben Hansbrough has made a ‘comeback' in games against Alabama. Three weeks ago he was coming off a broken finger and scored nine points in MSU's win at Tuscaloosa. This week, having missed three games with illness, he was again reactivated to pay the Tide and scored 10 points. Of those 19 points, 15 were on three-point goals.
*Hansbrough now has 82 treys in 53 career games and is on track to be the next Bulldog to reach the 100-threes mark.
*The transition to full-time starter has taken a toll on Hansbrough's shooting as a whole, though. As a rookie he was a 41.2% marksman at the arc, 42.0% for SEC season. This year he is 35.0% on trey-tries for the season and for SEC play alike. But, the soph's shooting seems to be sharper with those unintended breaks as he has been 5-of-12 in the two comeback games, playing each time off-the-bench.
*Like his classmate Stewart, Hansbrough has his own disparities for the season. In his case though they directly reflect the game's outcome. Hansbrough has shot just over 48% overall in losses he's been good on only 23% of all shots.
*Hansbrough continues one freshman trend; he's the most reliable free throw man on the team, at 75.7% this year, yet he doesn't get to the stripe often enough to be ranked by the SEC in that category. He had taken six stripe-shots in the last five games he has participated in.
*Hansbrough's assist/turnover rate is almost 2-to-1, at 47 scoring passes to 26 giveaways.
*Junior C Brian Johnson makes Varnado look like a reckless shooter. Off the bench, Johnson has taken just eight shots in SEC games…and made half of them.
*Johnson has established himself as a reliable rebounder in relief, too, with 15 boards in the last six games.
*And while it's not saying much in the current MSU context, Johnson is the best big Dog at the free throw line at 78.6%. But the Alabama game saw freshman C Elgin Bailey, only 11-of-33 at the stripe before, make both his charity chances.
*When State was running a four-guard offense, redshirt freshman Phil Turner thrived with 22 points in the first three games. Since State went back to a two-post lineup, though, Turner isn't getting such exploitable matchups and he's managed just 16 points in the last five games. That on 5-of-24 shooting, 4-of-14 at the arc.
*His rebounding has also taken a hit by moving farther from the basket. Turner had 16 boards in the first three SEC games, 19 in the last five.
*As active as he is, Turner somehow doesn't draw close enough attention to be fouled. He has attempted only five free throws in eight SEC games.
*Freshman G Riley Benock hasn't tried to assert himself in a SEC supporting role much. Except once, and he did it in style by going 4-of-5 against Ole Miss, all from the arc for a season-best 12 points.
*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.