*The teams have played two common foes. WKU lost at Houston, and beat South Alabama; while State defeated both those teams at home.
*The Bulldogs are already 2-0 against Sun Belt teams this season, having beaten Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama.
*State is now 1-4 in televised games this season after beating Houston on CSS.
About the Hilltoppers: Even by their program's stout standards, 2007-08 was an impressive season in Bowling Green with a 29-7 finish and 16-2 Sun Belt mark that fell short of a league title only because South Alabama had an even better run. When the Hilltoppers won two NCAA games to reach the Sweet Sixteen round they paid a price, as Coach Darrin Horn parlayed the success into a SEC job at South Carolina…a move that might not necessarily have been an upgrade, though. Still WKU knew who they wanted to take over, recalling former (1998-2003) aide Ken McDonald after he'd done stints at Georgia and Texas. Expectations are slightly reduced for his first team, with just two starters back, as the ‘Toppers are projected third in the East. But a 3-0 start to league play, as well as an upset over then-#3 Louisville and competitive outing at Florida State, signals this bunch intends to contend again. It helps having an old hand running the show, as senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez has stepped into the starting lineup and doubled his point production from 5.7 to 12.6. He has almost as many treys through 14 games this year, 33, as the 37 he had in 36 junior year games. And last week Mendez-Valdez scored the first known ‘triple-double' in program history in the win over Troy. All this, coming off knee problems. Junior guard A.J. Slaughter's improvement this year has been maybe more dramatic, going from a 7.6-point average to over 16 markers-per this winter. He began the year with five double-digit outings, and is the one to watch at long range with 23 treys on 40% arc-accuracy. Like MSU, the ‘Toppers are long and lanky in the post with Jeremy Evans making his 80th career start Monday. He picks his shots carefully and makes 59%, and is already top-five in career blocks at 120. For more muscle in the middle D.J. Magley brings 255 pounds off the bench, though last year he started 33 of 36 games. The ‘Toppers hope to work 6-9 Japeth Aguilar into more post minutes, as he's coming back from a two-month knee injury. Forward production has been spotty at times, though soph Steffphon Pettigrew is starting to play up to his Kentucky ‘Mr. Basketball' title now that he's in the starting lineup and scoring double-digits, including a double-double in the win over Louisville. The other forward job has been split between Sergio Kerusch, a transfer from Itawamba CC, and freshman Dejan Cvoro. Kerusch, who got 19 points and 9 boards in juco ball, opened eight games while Cvoro sat five contests for amateurism questions. The Serbian star has talent but typical import shot-selection issues; then again Kerusch is a 39% shooter himself. Still the Hilltoppers aren't shy about putting it up and enough longballs fall to make up for lack of pure rebounding prowess and a few turnovers too many for comfort. WKU has popped ten or more treys five times this season, or as many games as all of last year. This is in keeping both with the program's mindset, as well as a roster featuring imports from such exotic locals as Serbia, Montenegro, the Philippines, and Crossett, Ark. And the stat to watch: Western has won the last eight times they scored 80 or more points.
Projected Starting Lineups
WESTERN KENTUCKY: F Steffphon Pettigrew, SO 6-5 225, 11.8ppg, 5.5rpg; F Dejan Cvoro, FR 6-5 185, 2.5ppg, 0.9rpg; C Jeremy Evans, JR 6-9 190, 8.7ppg, 5.5rpg; G A.J. Slaughter, JR 6-3 180, 16.2ppg, 3.4apg; G Orlando Mendez-Valdez, SR, 6-1 185, 12.2ppg, 3.8apg.
Top Backups: F Sergio Kerusch, SO 6-5 210, 10.4ppg, 6.9rpg; C D.J. Magley, SO 6-9 225, 3.1ppg, 2.3rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Ravern Johnson SO 6-7 175, 11.5ppg, 4.1rpg, 29 3pts; G/F Phil Turner SO 6-3 170, 6.7ppg, 3.7rpg, 10 3pts; C Jarvis Varnado JR 6-9 210, 13.3ppg, 9.9rpg, 62%fgs, 81 blks; G Dee Bost FR 6-2 170, 8.7ppg, 64 asts, 17 3pts; G Barry Stewart JR 6-3 170, 10.1ppg, 3.4rpg, 20 3pts.
Top Backups: F Romero Osby FR 6-8 230, 6.9ppg, 3.6rpg; G Riley Benock SO 6-4 180, 2.8ppg, 1.4rpg; C Elgin Bailey, SO 6-8 254, 5.0ppg, 3.0rpg.
How They Compare:
Scoring: MSU 74.4ppg, WK 70.2ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 64.5ppg, WK 68.3ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 45.2%, WK 43.8%
FG Defense: MSU 35.9%, WK 42.3%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 34.9%, WK 38.9%
3-Point Attempts PGame: MSU 19.2, WK 20.6
Rebounding: MSU 40.9rpg, WK 37.0
Rebound Margin: MSU +2.3, WK +2.1
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 68.7%, WK 70.1%
Free Throw Attempts PGame: MSU 24.9, WK 17.0
Turnovers: MSU 225, WK 167 The Series: The teams have met just four times and split the games. Western Kentucky took wins in 1941at home and 1960 in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl tourney. Both Bulldog wins have come much more recently; in 2000 in Starkville, and in 2004 at Bowling Green.
Bulldog Notes: In all their nine wins this season the Bulldogs have led at halftime. In all five losses, they trailed at intermission.
*MSU has not given up more than 77 points this season, but is 1-3 in games where the opponents make it to 70 or better. Meanwhile the Dogs are 8-1 when scoring 70 or more.
*Win or lose, Mississippi State has played hard defense this season and hasn't allowed 45% shooting so far. The best—or to MSU, worst—accuracy so far is 44.6% to Cincinnati. And in their most recent outing the Dogs held Houston under 28% shooting. For the year State is allowing 35.9% field goal shooting. Last winter MSU set a modern SEC record (post 1969) by holding foes to 37.0% accuracy all year.
*Most opponents try to offset State's defensive strength around the basket by shooting often from long range. The lone exception was San Diego, which took only four three-point shots all night and made two.
*But throwing up longballs is a hit-or-miss approach, and taking away the SD game the last three opponents have been 27-of-80 or 34% at the arc, lower than MSU's season-average defense as a whole.
*The Bulldogs are 9-0 when shooting better than 40%. In the loss to Texas Tech, they hit 40% even.
*Since going to the four-guard, one-post lineup, State is 3-2 and has been out-rebounded in four of five games. But on offense the Dogs have out-shot four of these five foes, too.
*For the second half of December, C Jarvis Varnado was the hottest Dog on offense as he scored 21 or more points in four of five games. That included consecutive 24-point performances against Cincinnati and Nicholls State. And in the whole month of December Varnado shot 75.5%.
*But in the last two contests the junior has been limited to ten and four points, on 5-of-16 shooting. And Varnado played just 16 minutes in the Houston win after spraining his right ankle in the first half.
*Varnado still has notched double-digits in nine of 14 games. All last season he had 12 games with 10 or more points.
*Despite increased reliance on his offense, Varnado is taking just over eight shots per-game.
*Of course there are nights Varnado blocks that many opposing shots. Limited minutes Saturday let him swat ‘only' three balls, matching his lowest output of the season (3 vs. Charlotte). Still Varnado now has 81 blocks in 14 games for the junior year, putting him over half-way to his soph season total of 157 in 34 games.
*That 157 tied the SEC season record of former LSU great Shaquille O'Neal in 1992. O'Neal also owns the league career mark of 412, but at Varnado's pace that standard would be doomed. Varnado now has 305 swats and is the fifth SEC player to top 300. He needs 318 to tie for 4th.
*Varnado averaged 4.6 blocks last year in tying the SEC season standard; he is netting 5.8 this year.
*The rest of the MSU roster has 57 blocks, with C Elgin Bailey (20) and G/F Ravern Johnson (10) the only others in double-figures so far. This team is over half-way to their SEC season record of 267 blocks set last winter, and yet has played less than half the schedule.
*Varnado has blocked at least one shot in 76 of 83 career games, and in the last 31 games.
*Varnado has five double-doubles this season. He had three all of last campaign.
*After shooting just 53% and 50% even on free throws for his first two years, Varnado is posting a much-improved 62.7% rate this junior campaign. And in the last four games he is 16-of-21.
*Junior G Barry Stewart is still looking for the offensive consistency asked of State's ranking backcourt veteran. After starting the season with 19-of-34 shooting (10-of-20 at the arc) in the first four games, he is just 27-of-97 overall since.
*In December, Stewart was 5-of-27 from the arc. He began January by going 2-of-5 against Houston, his best accuracy since shooting the same against Washington State.
*Stewart has notched double-digit points in four of the last 10 games.
*But in the last three games, since getting over a wrist problem, Stewart is 11-of-14 on free throws.
*Stewart remains #7 in MSU career treys, with 150 now. He needs 160 to catch Winsome Frazier (2002-05) for the next notch on the list. He is one of a dozen Dogs to have made 100 or more threeballs.
*Stewart never played less than 25 minutes as a sophomore (30 in SEC play). His USA game was cut to 18 minutes by the wrist; and Saturday he worked only 24 minutes against Houston as younger backups Riley Benock and Twany Beckham got longer shifts.
*PG Dee Bost bounced back from a one-assist game against San Diego with eight scoring passes against Houston. Before the SD contest Bost has passed out 14 assists over three games and climbed to 3rd in the SEC weekly average.
*Bost now has 64 assists for his rookie season. That is already the 8th-best freshman year ever at State, and he is a good game from climbing two more rungs as he trails #7 Gary Hooker (68, 1976) and #6 Ray White (69, 1976). The record is 129 by Jamont Gordon in 2006.
*More impressively maybe is a very positive ratio in passing, with 42 turnovers.
*Looking to pass-first has actually improved Bost's scoring chances, making him more selective on shots. After a four-game stretch where he shot 6-of-27 (3-of-17 on trey-tries), in the last two contests he is 7-of-12 overall and 3-of-7 at the arc.
*Bost has also made himself a reliable rebounder, with 21 boards in the last five games.
*He may be the smallest ‘big forward' in the SEC. But G Phil Turner can certainly come up big on the boards himself. In the last four games Turner has collected 24 rebounds, and he is averaging 5.2 boards since moving into the starting lineup.
*Turner had 84 rebounds all last season; he is over half-way there this year with 44 in 14 games.
*A starting job has done big things for Turner's scoring, too. In his five openings he has scored 10, 12, 11, 6, and 16 points; a 11.0 average. As a non-starter Turner had 39 points in 9 games, a 4.3 average.
*Turner has shot 18-of-34 as a starter overall. And while he was just 2-of-11 at the arc in his first four starts, he went 3-of-4 in the Houston game.
*Turner played 22 minutes against Houston without committing a foul.
*G/F Ravern Johnson is looking for and taking a lot more shots lately. In the last three games he has put the ball up 35 times total. Of those, 16 attempts came from beyond the arc; actually a lower percentage than in the first four weeks of the season.
*Moving closer to the basket has done good things for Johnson's accuracy, too. The last three games he is 10-of-19 on anything shot inside the arc; 4-of-16 beyond it.
*Johnson still was State's top producer on threeballs for December, with 11 treys in the month. The soph has 29 treys so far; he only shot 24 of them all last season.
*Getting a single board in the Cincinnati game means Johnson has at least one rebound in all contests this season. He had 30 rebounds all his freshman year; he has almost doubled that in pre-SEC soph play with 57.
*Johnson has made 10 of his last 13 free-throw tries, and 77.8% for the year.
*It was the 12th game of the season before G Riley Benock got to shoot a free throw; or two, as he made both. He went 1-of-2 at the line in the Houston game.
*F Romero Osby opened January by scoring 13 points against Houston. The freshman had scored 14 points combined in the previous four games.
*Osby's seven rebounds Saturday were the most since he grabbed eight boards in the opening game against Centenary.
*Suddenly Osby has the ‘hot' hand at the arc. He hit one trey in two tries against San Diego, and was 2-of-3 against Houston. Before that he was 2-of-11 at the arc.
*But on all shots the rookie is still just 7-of-18 in the last three games.
*Senior C Brian Johnson missed the first 11 games with foot and ankle issues. He has come off the bench in the last three games, and against Houston got his first baskets of the year making two of three shots.
*C Elgin Bailey returned to active duty in the Houston game after missing two contests with an ankle injury.
*Bailey is certainly willing to put up the shot. Making them has been problematic as the soph is 10-of-24 in the last 8 games he's participated in.
*Reserve G Christopher Gay got his first college basket with a jumper against Houston. Bulldog walk-ons are 3-of-5 shooting this season.