*It's common knowledge Mississippi State leads the league in most defensive categories. But, for SEC-games only, the Bulldogs now are actually the best-shooting squad in the conference. For nine SEC contests, State has shot 47.2%.
*State and Arkansas met three times last year, with the Dogs winning at home and the Hogs winning both in Fayetteville and in the SEC Tournament. In those three games, MSU guard Jamont Gordon averaged 17.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 5.3 assists. And forward Charles Rhodes averaged 16.3 points and 8.0 rebounds.
*Meanwhile in those three meetings Jackson native Charles Thomas had 19 points and 14 boards in the regular-season games…but exploded for 18 of each in Atlanta. Thomas did not play against State three weeks ago, while Rhodes had a double-double at Fayetteville.
About the Razorbacks: Will the real Razorbacks please stand up? Or of more matter to Arkansas' SEC ambitions, who will show up Saturday afternoon in Starkville. Will it be the squad that strung four impressive wins together, aided by three-straight home dates; or the squad that lost in January South Carolina and Georgia, and this week was thrashed at Tennessee? Certainly State folk prefer to face the latter, not the team that kicked the Dogs around three weeks ago and looked every bit the league favorites Arkansas was expected to be. Perhaps it doesn't matter quite as much three months into a season now but the Hogs are still the most veteran roster in the conference. And when the inside/outside combo is working this is a club capable of beating anyone…though ‘anywhere' has yet to be proven given lack of real road success so far. There's no secret to successes here; Arkansas is stout defending and rebounding and in SEC-only stats ranks with the best in both categories. As they should be given a physical front line that is more blue-collar than brilliant. He missed the first-round with State but senior Charles Thomas certainly would like to notch another ‘W' against his home-state team. It's not his numbers that matter, it's the tough jobs Thomas does around both goals that steadies the Hogs inside…though given the opportunity the Jackson native can take over a game if needed. Coach John Pelphrey also enjoys being able to alternate Thomas with classmate Darian Townes, or use both to bookend the baseline around center Steven Hill. The seven-footer selects his few shots well, and blocks enough attempts to influence the opposition. And should there be foul issues (by the way, Townes is the one to foul if necessary) soph Michael Washington can replace the bulk and boardwork quite nicely. Bulldog fans recall how lanky wingman Sonny Weems lit State up from the arc the last time. The senior is UA's top scorer at 15 points-per, but not the leader in longballs. That's soph Patrick Beverly, maybe the most unique guard in the league as not only does he pop from the perimeter but at 6-1 slices into traffic for an amazing number of rebounds. Soph Stefan Welsh gets the starting nod at the point this year and is capable, but when it's time to up the tempo Gary Ervin is ready to rotate in and get the offense moving. And obviously the former Bulldog (2004-05) would like his last trip to his former home court to go better than last year's shut-out appearance. Weaknesses? The turnover margin could be better, and outside shooting has been erratic in losses. And of course there's the unpredictability issue, especially when they leave the pigpen. But if anyone in the Division should be able to shake off one bad game and follow with a strong showing, it ought to be Arkansas. And given how stingy the NCAA is likely to be issuing bids to the SEC West this year, there is no lack of motivation this weekend.
Projected Starting Lineups
ARKANSAS: F Sonny Weems, SR 6-6 200, 15.1ppg, 4.9rpg, 36 3ptrs; F Charles Thomas, SR 6-8 235, 9.8ppg, 4.9rpg, 28 blks; C Steven Hill, SR 7-0 250, 5.0ppg, 3.1rpg, 67.5% fgs, 45 blks; G Stefan Welsh, SO 6-2 180, 4.8ppg, 2.6apg, 20 3ptrs; G Patrick Beverly, SO 6-1 172, 11.9ppg, 6.9rpg, 42 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: G Gary Ervin, SR 6-0 176, 8.9ppg, 3.5apg, 12 3ptrs; F Darian Townes, SR 6-10 254, 11.0ppg, 4.9rpg, 57.8%fgs; F/C Michael Washington, SO 6-10 229, 5.7ppg, 5.0rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Charles Rhodes, SR 6-8 245, 14.9ppg, 55.5%fgs, 7.7rpg, 31 blks; G/F Jamont Gordon, JR 6-4 230, 18.1ppg, 6.3rpg, 4.7apg, 43 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, SO 6-9 210, 7.1ppg, 63.3% fgs, 7.8rpg, 111 blks; G Barry Stewart, SO 6-2 170, 12.0ppg, 4.3rpg, 2.9apg, 42 3ptrs; G Ben Hansbrough, SO 6-3 205, 10.3ppg, 3.6rpg, 2.6apg, 39 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: G Phil Turner, rFR 6-3 170, 5.0ppg, 3.4rpg, 22 3ptrs; F/C Brian Johnson, JR 6-9 245, 2.5ppg, 2.6rpg; C Elgin Bailey, FR , 1.9ppg, 2.0rpg.
How They Compare
Scoring: MSU 73.0ppg, ARK 73.8ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 63.0ppg, ARK 65.2ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 46.7%, ARK 46.2%
FG Defense: MSU 36.1%, ARK 40.5%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 34.3%, ARK 32.6%
3-Point Attempts: MSU 21.2pg, ARK 16.8pg
Rebounding: MSU 41.3rpg, ARK 37.9rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU +5.7, ARK +6.0
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 62.4%, ARK 68.5%
Free Throw Attempts: MSU 21.3pg, ARK 22.7pg
Assists: MSU 13.5pg, ARK 15.1pg
Turnover Ratio: MSU -2.6, ARK -0.1
The Series: With their January win, Arkansas increased their series lead to 26-18 (20-14 as a member of the SEC). Mississippi State still holds a 14-5 advantage on campus, 12-5 in Humphrey Coliseum. Rick Stansbury is 9-12 against Arkansas.
Bulldog Notes: The reputation, and numbers, took a modest hit in consecutive losses. But the last two wins have showed Mississippi State is back to playing top-notch defense. Alabama and Auburn were a combined 35% shooting against the Dogs, who remain first in SEC defense for scoring (63.0 ppg), shooting (36.1%), and blocks (8.57 pg). State is also third in three-point defense (31.1%).
*Those are all-season numbers; the stats for SEC-games are more impressive where MSU is still first in scoring (62.2ppg), shooting (34.4%), and blocks (9.44pg). And in league play the Dogs are second-best in defending the arc! This despite the fact that foes throw up over 20 trey-tries per game against MSU, rather than challenge the shot-blockers around the rim.
*For most of three months they were the foulest foul-shooting squad in the league. No longer. Mississippi State has picked up the stripe-pace in recent weeks, and went 23-of-26 at Auburn. In their last five games the Dogs have shot just under 80% on free throws.
*G/F Jamont Gordon's third SEC season had a slow start with 28 combined points in the first two games. Since then, though, he's been on a career-tear averaging 20.4 points in seven games on 47% shooting.
*Gordon averaged 16.3 points in SEC play as a all-conference sophomore; he's on an even better track this junior season at 19.0 even. Gordon's all-season average of 18.1 is the best by a Bulldog since Tony Watts averaged 19.2 in 1992. Darryl Wilson averaged 18.0 in 1996.
*Gordon has scored double-digits in 22 of his 23 games this year, and 79 of his 88 career games.
*With 24 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists at Auburn Gordon was close to getting his second career triple-double; and only the fourth on-record by a Bulldog. Gordon tallied a T-D last season against Vanderbilt (15 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists).
*Gordon is still the only State starter not to foul out of a game this year, despite averaging 33.4 minutes on the floor.
*Gordon became the eleventh Bulldog with 100 career three-pointers and now owns 10th place with 112, having just surpassed the 111 of Doug Hartsfield (1988-91).
*Gordon now stands 10th on the MSU career scoring list with 1,390 point. 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, 356. He's made the fifth-most free pitches ever by a Bulldog.
*And Gordon is closing in on #3 in career assists at State. He has 424 in three seasons and is 30 behind the 454 of Chuck Evans (1992-93) who got his in just two years. In the last three games Gordon has passed out 24 assists. *With 105 career steals he needs 17 more to achieve top-ten status.
*His efforts on the boards at Auburn moved Gordon up another rung on the career chart. He now has 593, having just passed Terry Kusnierz (592, 1972-74) for 17th place.
*With a 24-point, 13-rebound day at Auburn Gordon scored his second double-double of the season. He had five as a sophomore.
*But there's no question which Dog doubles it up most. F/C Charles Rhodes is back to his beastly ways at both ends of the floor these days. Since shaking off ankle issues, the senior has had a double-double in three of the last four SEC games. That gives Rhodes eight for this season, compared to six D-Ds in his first three college years.
*In the last five games Rhodes has averaged a double-double, with 17.2 points and 10.0 rebounds. For the whole SEC season he's provided 13.9 points and 8.1 rebounds. And his 55.8% shooting is fourth-best among league players for conference play.
*Rhodes broke into the career top-20 scorers a week ago, and now stands 19th with 1,211 points. That's eight points in back of both Dave Williams (1966-68) and Leland Mitchell (1961-63) in 17th.
*Rhodes' scoring has gone up the last few weeks while has accuracy has slipped somewhat, a fair trade-off of course. He is ‘down' to 55.5% for the whole season, still solidly among the SEC's most reliable shooters around the rim. Where it matters is Rhodes' ongoing attempt to end his college career among the top-ten marksmen in MSU history. He now stands 11th at 55.89%; 10th place belongs to Robert Jackson (56.27%, 1999-01). They've been ‘swapping' tenth place for the last two seasons.
*Maybe no Bulldog has more enjoyed playing for, and to, the home crowd. It shows in his senior stats because Rhodes is a 61% shooter in all games in Humphrey Coliseum compared to 47% in road/neutral games. The difference in home SEC games is even greater as Rhodes has shot 67% in The Hump against league foes; 38% in four SEC road games!
*Rhodes is no 16th in career rebounds with 602, and needs nine more to catch Greg Carter (611, 1988-91) to break into the top-15.
*Rhodes is 6th in career blocked shots with 133.
*And in the last three games Rhodes, who had been battling inconsistency at the foul line, is 17-of-21on free throws.
*Two years into his college career and C Jarvis Varnado owns a pair of season records. After setting the freshman-year mark with 67 blocks as a rookie, Varnado just surpassed the single-season standard set by Erick Dampier with 106 in 1996. The soph blocked six balls at Auburn, giving him 111 for the season. Varnado and Dampier are the only Dogs ever to block 100 shots in a season.
*Varnado is the runaway SEC leader in blocks, and has more than twice as many swats as the second-place man (55 by LSU's Anthony Randolph) as of this week.
*With 178 blocks already, Varnado is closing in on 3rd place in the record book. In fact with a typical game he could catch 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 51 of 58 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.
*As Rhodes has asserted himself more on the glass, Varnado has had fewer chances at rebounds. He's grabbed just ten boards in the last three games. Still his 7.8 for the season tops the team and is well-ahead of his 4.2 rebound pace as a freshman.
*Yet as his rebound numbers slip, Varnado's scoring improves…slowly. After getting a single point at Arkansas, he's notched 7.0 in the last three games. But the real story is his accuracy, as Varnado is 10-of-13 in these three games. That's almost 77% shooting. And for all SEC season Varnado is 29-of-43, or 67.4%
*But you won't find his name on SEC accuracy lists because at 4.7 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. Then again, he hasn't attempted a free throw in the last two games.
*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 three February games Stewart has connected on 11-of-20 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 110 longballs for his college career, just two behind Gordon on the active-list and 12th all-time.
*Compared to his 110 career treys, Stewart has made just 130 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, 37.5%, 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 33% in wins.
*G Ben Hansbrough celebrated a return to the starting lineup with a 6-of-9 shooting day (4-of-7 from the arc) at Auburn, and matched his season-high with 20 points. He had just one 20-point day (23 vs. Texas A&M-CC) as a freshman.
*The six goals against Auburn matched Hansbrough's total makes in two games against Alabama, each time coming off injury/illness. He was 6-of-16 in those contests, but 5-of-12 at the arc so hurt or sick his outside-eye hasn't been affected.
*In fact he's been a better long-shooter after his health issues. Before breaking a finger he was 2-of-8 at the arc; since then he is 9-of-19. That's an encouraging trend because Hansbrough's sophomore-shooting was well-off his rates of 41.2% overall/42.0% SEC as a freshman.
*Hansbrough now has 86 treys in 54 career games and is on track to be the next Bulldog to reach the 100-threes mark.
*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 49% overall in losses he's been good on only 23% of all shots. At the arc, it's been 43.1% good in wins and 22.9% in losses.
*Hansbrough continues one freshman trend; he's the most reliable free throw man among starters, at 76.2% this year, yet he doesn't get to the stripe often enough to be ranked by the SEC in that category. He had taken seven stripe-shots in the last six games he has participated in.
*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.
*And while it's not saying much in the current MSU context, Johnson is the best 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. Neither got a chance to show their touch at Auburn.
*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 19 points in the last six games. That on 6-of-26 shooting, 5-of-16 at the arc.
*As active as he is, Turner somehow doesn't draw close enough attention to be fouled. He has attempted only five free throws in nine 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.