*The teams have played one common foe, both owning home-court victories over South Alabama.
*State is now 2-4 in televised games this season after beating both Houston and Western Kentucky on CSS.
About the Razorbacks: Safe to say, Arkansas' decision to dump Stan Heath after five seasons and consecutive NCAA first-round appearances has been proved correct. In his initial season John Pelphrey surpassed his predecessor's best SEC finish, coming in second in the '08 West race; and advanced another game into post-season play. And now that he has his own personnel playing, Pelphrey's club is looking even better. The begin SEC play with the best winning percentage (only Florida has more victories), a ten-win streak, and certainly the best image in an otherwise shaky West after well-earned upsets of Oklahoma and Texas. And the Razorbacks are doing it with only three returned lettermen and less than 20% of the scoring and boarding back from last winter. Certainly there's no arguing who has the best rookie class in the Division with no less than three freshmen starting the opening game and still taking tipoffs 13 contests later. In fact Pelphrey has used that first-night lineup in all but a couple of games…and why not with kids like Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clark? SEC season is just starting but they might as well engrave Fortson's name on the league freshman of the year award. Maybe even the national award for that matter, if he keeps up a 15-point, seven-assist rate. And he certainly plays bigger than 5-11 in every aspect, chasing down rebounds with abandon and efficiency. If Fortson hasn't tried to light it up from long range, it's more because classmate Clark has that covered with 34 treys and a 43% accuracy at the arc that leads the SEC. Oh, and he's missed just one college free throw. It's not an all-freshman Arkansas act, though. Junior Stefan Welsh has blossomed offensively, going from a 5.3 scorer last year to 14 points. In the last couple of weeks he's made good on over 50% of his trey-tries. But the real breakout story belongs to junior forward Michael Washington, who has started more games this year than all last season and gone from 4.3 points and 3.9 boards to force on both ends of the floor and 60% shooter. He is a two-time league POTW already, and leads the SEC in rebounding as ten-plus. Freshman Michael Sanchez adds muscle with six points and rebounds alike, and former football wideout Marcus Monk is making an impact now that he's healthy and on hardwood as a backup forward. In fact Pelphrey makes free use of his whole roster as nine Hogs are netting ten or more minutes-per, and only Fortson regularly plays more than 30. Now that we're in conference play that rotation might be scaled back a bit. Or, maybe not. Why mess with early-season success?
Projected Starting Lineups
ARKANSAS: F Michael Washington, JR 6-9 239, 17.8ppg, 60.4%fgs, 10.2ppg; F Michael Sanchez, FR 6-8 236, 6.9ppg, 6.5rpg; G Stefan Welsh, JR 6-3 185, 14.0ppg, 25 3ptrs, 2.4apg, G Courtney Forston, FR 5-11 180, 15.1ppg, 5.8rpg, 7.1apg; G Rotnei Clark, FR 6-0 184, 12.2ppg, 34 3pts, 1.7 rpg.
Top Backups: G/F Jason Henry, FR 6-6 189, 7.0ppg, 2.9rpg; G Marcus Britt, SO 6-3 198, 4.0ppg, 1.5stls; F Andre Clark, FR 6-9 218, 3.4ppg, 2.3rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Ravern Johnson SO 6-7 175, 12.5ppg, 3.9rpg, 35 3pts; G/F Phil Turner SO 6-3 170, 6.7ppg, 3.7rpg, 10 3pts; C Jarvis Varnado JR 6-9 210, 12.8ppg, 9.9rpg, 61%fgs, 82 blks; G Dee Bost FR 6-2 170, 9.3ppg, 4.3asts, 19 3pts; G Barry Stewart JR 6-3 170, 10.6ppg, 3.3rpg, 24 3pts.
Top Backups: F Romero Osby FR 6-8 230, 6.7ppg, 3.5rpg; G Riley Benock SO 6-4 180, 2.9ppg, 11 3ptrs; C Elgin Bailey, SO 6-8 254, 5.1ppg, 2.9rpg.
How They Compare:
Scoring: MSU 75.7ppg, 81.5ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 64.7ppg, ARK 68.3ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 46.5%, ARK 46.7%
FG Defense: MSU 36.3%, ARK 41.3%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 37.1%, ARK 37.9%
3-Point Attempts PGame: MSU 19.4, ARK 17.8
Rebounding: MSU 40.3rpg, ARK 41.5rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU +2.3, ARK +8.3
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 69.4%, ARK 65.6%
Free Throw Attempts PGame: MSU 24.0, ARK 29.9
Turnovers: MSU 15.9, ARK 14.1
The Series: Arkansas holds a 26-19 lead since the first meeting in 1952, and a 21-15 mark since this became a SEC rivalry. It is much more lopsided in Fayetteville games where Arkansas is 16-3. The Bulldogs have won only twice in Walton Arena, with consecutive successes in 2004 and '05. Rick Stansbury is 10-12 against Arkansas teams, with two of the losses coming in SEC Tournament play (1999, 2007).
Bulldog Notes: In all their ten wins this season the Bulldogs have led at halftime. In all five losses, they trailed at intermission.
*Mississippi State has not allowed over 77 points this season, and given up 70 or more points just four times though the Dogs are 1-3 in those games. Meanwhile State is 9-1 when scoring 70 or more.
*State is 10-0 when shooting better than 40% from the floor.
*The Dogs have slipped to second in SEC shooting defense at 36.3%. Last year State set a modern SEC record for field goal defense at 37.0% for the overall season. But the highest anyone has shot against MSU this year so far is 44.6% by Cincinnati.
*And while fans are annually convinced State doesn't defend the perimeter as well, they are still 4th in SEC three-point defense at 33% even.
*Going with a smaller lineup of four guard-types has hurt the Dogs on the boards somewhat, though, as they rank just 4th in SEC rebounding and 12th in opponents' rebounding. They have been beaten on the boards in four of the last six games. But, the Bulldogs have out-shot the opponents in five of these contests, too.
*And State again leads the league in blocking shots. In fact with 135 rejections they are on pace to break their own SEC record of 267 set last season.
This despite C Jarvis Varnado swatting just one ball in the Western Kentucky game. Not because he wasn't working, but because the Hilltoppers stayed outsides Varnado's intimidating reach. This week's national block-leader, Varnado is in good shape to defend his SEC shot-block title with 82 rejections in 15 games, a 5.5 rate. In fact he is well over half-way to his 2008 total of 157 blocks, which tied the SEC season standard. Last year he blocked ‘just' 4.6 balls-per game.
*The fifth SEC player ever to block 300 shots, Varnado with 306 is closing in on fourth place which will require 318 rejections. Varnado has blocked at least one shot in 77 of 84 career games and in the last 32 contests.
*For three weeks Varnado was the hottest Dog on offense, too, with 21 or more points in four of five games. That included consecutive 24-point outputs (Cincinnati, Nicholls State). For the month of December he shot 75.5%
*But that scoring pace has dropped dramatically with 10, 4, and 6 points in the last three games, as Varnado isn't getting as many opportunities when teammates are throwing in jumpshots. And in his last three games Varnado has shot a combined 7-of-22. He's still 3rd in SEC accuracy at 60.7% for the year.
*And his ten-board effort against WKU gave him the eighth double-digit rebound night of the season, keeping him #2 in SEC average this week. He got ten or more rebounds 10 times all last season, twice as a freshman.
*Varnado has made huge strides as a free-throw shooter, too. After making just 53% and 50% the first two seasons, he is a 63.8% marksman at the stripe this winter and has hit 18-of-23 in the last four games.
*Junior G Barry Stewart had a rough few weeks on offense, not helped by a wrist problem, but he's showing signs of finding the range just in time for SEC action. He went 6-of-9 in the WKU game and 4-of-6 at the arc for a season-best 18 points. This after he was 27-of-97 shooting in the previous ten games.
*And after going 5-of-27 at the arc in December, in two January games he is 6-of-11 on trey-tries.
*Stewart has notched double-digit points in three of the last four games and is averaging 10.6 for non-conference play.
*But since getting over the sprained left wrist Stewart is 13-of-16 on free throws and has upped his accuracy to 69%.
*Stewart is closing in on another rung on State's career three-pointer ladder. He now has 154 treys, and with 160 will tie Winsome Frazier (2002-05) for #6 on the list. He is one of a dozen Dogs with 100 or more threefers.
*It doesn't get noticed much but Stewart is second in State assists with 25, and in steals with 17. Not that thieving is or has been a MSU priority.
*The wrist problem, as well as the need to get a couple of younger guards into real action, means Stewart averaged ‘only' 29.0 minutes in pre-league play. But as a sophomore he never notched less than 30 minutes in any SEC game.
*In a game where State scored 95 points, it was startling that PG Dee Bost did not have a single assist. It was the first time all season the freshman was not credited with a scoring pass, and came after an 8-assist day against Houston.
*Bost still ranks 5th in SEC assist average, and with 64 for the season has already posted the 8th-best freshman passer year ever at State. He's not yet halfway to Jamont Gordon's rookie-record of 129 (2006) though.
*An emphasis on moving the ball has actually improved Bost's scoring as he is getting better chances to do something other than put up long shots. After a four-game stretch where he was 6-of-27 overall and 3-of-17 at the arc, Bost in the last three games is 14-of-24 and 5-of-11.
*Bost has also made himself a reliable rebounder, with 25 boards in the last six games.
*State's hot-shot of late is sophomore G/F Ravern Johnson. He has averaged 13.5 points in the last six games including a 26-point outburst against Western Kentucky. It was his second 20-plus outing of the season.
*For WKU Johnson went wild, making 9-of-10 shots overall and setting a program record for arc-accuracy (based on attempts) of 6-of-7, or 85.7%.
*Johnson has put up 10 or more shots in the last four games, and been good on 23-of-45. On trey-tries he is 10-of-23 in this stretch.
*But Johnson has made the effort to create closer shots, too. Inside the arc he is 13-of-22 in the last four games.
*Johnson has made 35 treys this year. He attempted just 24 all last year.
*Getting a single board in the WKU 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 58.
*Johnson has made 12 of his last 15 free-throw tries, and 80% even for the year.
*With his teammates running wild at the arc last game, F Romero Osby didn't attempt a trey against WKU. This after he made good on three of five tries over the previous two games.
*After getting blanked on the boards by San Diego, Osby has nine rebounds in the last two games.
*A starting job has brought G Phil Turner to the fore, with four double-digit games in his six tipoffs. He has averaged 10.2 points as a starter, compare to 4.3 when he was a backup.
*And his shooting as an opener is a stout 21-of-39, or 54%. Though at the arc he is just 5-of-17 in these games.
*In these starts Turner has grabbed 30 rebounds, too, despite being the smallest ‘big' forward in the SEC. All last season he had 84 boards; Turner is up to 56 halfway through this season.
*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.
*Benock has started asserting himself on offense again, making three of five shots in the last two games with a good trey in each.
*After missing the first 11 games with foot and ankle problems, C Brian Johnson is gradually getting up to speed. He's played 32 minutes in relief since return to active status, and in the last two games scored nine points on 3-of-4 shooting. Of course Johnson has always been a selective shooter; he took just 48 attempts in 30 games last season, and was good on 63% of them.
*Soph C Elgin Bailey is also back to speed after two missed games for an ankle injury. In his two January games he is 5-of-9 for 13 points. Before the injury he was 7-of-19 in seven games.