*At halftime, Mississippi State will honor the greatest name in Bulldog basketball history by retiring the jersey of Bailey Howell. An All-American in both 1958 and '59, and still the #2 all-time scoring leader for State, the Starkville resident will have his #52 jersey hung permanently from the Humphrey Coliseum rafters 50 seasons after he finished his Bulldog career with the school's first SEC Championship team.
About the Razorbacks: Arkansas strutted into SEC season looking, on the strength of legitimate victories over top-ten tenants Oklahoma and Texas, like the new Division favorite. Four weeks later the Razorbacks are looking up from the bottom of the West…a slide begun by that loss to the Bulldogs, the first of three homecourt defeats to-date. In the most recent, a last-shot setback to Tennessee, John Pelphrey tried altering the lineup and giving freshman guard Jason Henry his first college start. An 11-point contribution and a three-pointer, something this offense really can use, will keep him there this weekend. Experience isn't any issue because Henry took the place of a fellow freshman, big forward Michael Sanchez. Three rookies have started every game so far this schedule, reflecting both what was graduated or transferred from last year's NCAA participant…and what the long-term future should be for the Hogs. Certainly any program would be thrilled to have a backcourt tandem of gifted frosh Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clark. Point guard Fortson is a sure consensus all-frosh team pick nationally, and maybe the best newcomer in the league…though SEC play has certainly cramped his style a bit, with scoring off a full point and an assist/turnover rate not much better than break-even. And the kid has hit just three treys in league play. Clark has hit 11 but his SEC scoring is over two points down from December. Older hand Stefan Welsh is the other outside option with 13 SEC treys, and provides some needed size in a very short backcourt. In fact by sitting the 6-8 Sanchez, Arkansas is mimicking Mississippi State's four-guard approach to turn the season around. That leaves Michael Washington to carry the inside load almost alone, which the 6-9 junior has the game to do at each end. He's notched nine double-doubles already this season and will surely score more. Only Fortson has taken more shots and, of course, he handles the ball. That's not always been a strong point for Arkansas as these guard's aggressive style has produced more turnovers than assists overall. The Hogs are also getting beat on the boards for SEC season, and more worryingly they are at or near the bottom of the league (SEC games only) in both shooting and shooting-defense as well as last in longball accuracy making only one-in-four attempts. And football wideout Marcus Monk, who joined the hoops roster to literally bulk up the front line, is still in NCAA limbo. But writing this bunch off is risky as they gave LSU a serious second-half scare last Saturday and could easily have taken down the Volunteers. Thus the Bulldogs can take nothing about this rematch for granted.
Projected Starting Lineups (all-season stats):
ARKANSAS: G/F Jason Henry, FR 6-6 189, 7.4ppg, 4.1rpg; F Michael Washington, JR 6-9 239, 17.2ppg, 9.9rpg, 28 blks; PG Courtney Fortson, FR 5-11 180, 14.6ppg, 6.5apg; G Stefan Welsh, JR 6-3 185, 12.5ppg, 38 3ptrs, 2.3apg, G Rotnei Clark, FR 6-0 184, 10.8ppg, 45 3ptrs, 2.0rpg.
Top Backups: F Michael Sanchez, FR 6-8 236, 6.1ppg, 4.9rpg, G Marcus Britt, SO 6-3 198, 3.9ppg, 1.8rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: G/F Ravern Johnson, SO 6-7 175, 13.0ppg, 3.6rpg, 58 3ptrs, 49% 3ptrs; G/F Phil Turner, SO 6-3 170, 8.0ppg, 3.8rpg, 24 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, JR 6-9 210, 12.4ppg, 9.6rpg, 61%fgs, 105 blks; G Dee Bost, FR 6-2 170, 9.8ppg, 97 asts, 28 3ptrs; G Barry Stewart, JR 6-3 170, 10.6ppg, 3.1rpg, 40 3ptrs.
Top Backups: G Riley Benock, SO 6-4 180, 2.5ppg, 14 3ptrs; F Romero Osby, FR 6-8 230, 5.5ppg, 3.2rpg; C Elgin Bailey, SO 6-8 254, 4.3ppg, 2.7rpg, 23 blks.
HOW THEY COMPARE: (full-season stats)
Scoring: MSU 73.4ppg, ARK 76.3ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 65.1ppg, ARK 70.9ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 45.2%, ARK 45.1%
FG Defense: MSU 38.0%, ARK 42.5%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 37.7%, ARK 33.2%
3-Point Attempts: MSU 462, ARK 368
Rebounding: MSU 37.6rpg, ARK 39.2rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU -1.1, ARK +4.5
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 69.9%, ARK 65.4%
Free Throws Attempted: MSU 491, ARK 523
Turnovers: MSU 329, ARK 277
THE SERIES: Arkansas holds a 25-20 lead in a series that began in 1952 but became annual in 1992 and the score is 20-16 in the Hogs favor since it became a SEC rivalry. Arkansas won seven-straight from 1998-2000, and the Bulldogs took five-straight in 2004-06. State owns a 15-5 advantage in Starkville, 13 of those wins in Humphrey Coliseum where Arkansas has not won since 2000. Rick Stansbury is 11-12 against Arkansas, while John Pelphrey is 1-2 against State at UA.
BULLDOG NOTES: Through the first seven SEC games, all five State starters are scoring double-digits in league play.
*But in their last three games MSU backups have contributed a total of 17 points and 15 rebounds.
*It's a trend that has held true for better and worse. Or, for wins and losses. When Mississippi State shoots over 40%, the Dogs win…and have in all 15 victories this year. But in their seven setbacks they have shot exactly or under 40%, including a season-low 31.5% against Ole Miss. The previous low had been 32.6% against Washington State.
*It's a similar story with three-point shooting. In their five SEC wins the Bulldogs were 38% or better from the arc. And in thrashing Kentucky, they hit a ridiculous 52% on trey-tries. In the two losses they were 25% and 29% on longshots.
*Thus State's offense is blatantly built around the longball. In seven SEC games, over 45% of all field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc. By comparison SEC opponents take just 30% of their shots from long range.
*The price for a perimeter-oriented lineup is lack of rebounding muscle. In 11 of their last 13 games, and all seven SEC contests, the Bulldogs have been out-rebounded. And the margin in league play is over eight boards per game. But as long as the outside shots fall, there aren't many misses to rebound.
*For a three-game stretch SEC opponents avoided challenging State's shot-blockers, with just ten total rejections. But at Kentucky the Bulldogs blew away 13 balls, the most swats since November. This let State pad their league-lead in blocks to 179 for the year, 44 in seven SEC games.
*Last year's MSU team set the SEC season record with 267 blocks, in 34 games, for a 7.85 game average. This team is blocking 8.14-per game. They also lead the NCAA in the latest weekly stats for blocks per-game, after finishing second last season.
*And C Jarvis Varnado is the literal center-piece of this swat-assault, leading the NCAA after last week. His seven credited blocks at Kentucky pushed the junior over 100 blocks, for a second year, to 105 now through 23 games. This was after Varnado collected ‘just' eight blocks in the previous four games.
*Varnado is now a bit ahead of his 4.62-game pace when he tied the SEC season standard of 157. He's averaging 4.77 so far this year.
*And he just moved into third place in the SEC career standings with 329 blocks in three years. He's setting sites now on Kyle Davis' 360 blocks in four years for second place.
*Varnado is crashing the boards with his early-season abandon again. After grabbing 18 boards in a three-game stretch, he's collected 15 and 12 in the last two contests to raise his season rate to 9.6. That is second-best in this week's SEC-game stats only to Arkansas' Michael Washington.
*Varnado has 106 baskets so far this year. He had 109 all of last season.
*But his accuracy has slipped of late, as he is 4-of-11 in the last two games and dropped to 60.6% for the season; 60.4% in SEC action.
*Besides his board-work, Varnado has upgraded his free throwing this third season. He is making 74% of his chances in SEC games. Which is why his team would like the center to get to the stripe more than three or four times per-game.
*The hottest Dog in town, maybe in the country, is G Ravern Johnson, who has stepped to the offensive forefront in SEC season. He has scored double-digits in six of seven league games and is averaging 14.1 points.
*But it is his shooting that is even more impressive than the scoring. In the last three games Johnson has hit 14-of-24 on three-pointers; and for SEC season he is 23-of-47. And his all-season rate at the arc of 49.2% leads the entire NCAA as of this weekend.
*In fact, Johnson is more likely to hit a long shot than a short one as he is under 40% on anything attempted inside the arc.
*Except, from the foul line. There Johnson is a perfect 8-of-8 in SEC play…though getting just one chance per game means he isn't making enough trips to the stripe.
*PG Dee Bost seems to have broken out of a short slump, where he had 2 and 5 points in a couple of games. The last two contests he's contributed 13 and 10 points with a pair of treys in each outing.
*And the freshman continues to do his main job of getting the ball to teammates in scoring positions. He ranks second in SEC assists average at 4.4 per game overall, and 4.7 in SEC play-only. He's keeping a solid assist/turnover average, too, of 2.5-to-1.
*Bost already has the fourth-most assists for any MSU freshman at 97, and is about to become only the fourth Dog rookie to break 100 scoring passes. He needs 112 to tie for third place and 129 for the record set by Jamont Gordon in 2006.
*Bost has scored 63 field goals this year, and made 62 free throws. And, he has 68 rebounds.
*G Barry Stewart is closing in on becoming the 30th member of Mississippi State's 1,000-Point Club. The junior now has 967 career points, in 91 games.
*Popping a trio of treys Tuesday night moved Bowers into third-place on the MSU career list of made threes. Bowers has hit 170 longballs in his three seasons and now trails only Timmy Bowers (197) and Darryl Wilson (258).
*Stewart has blown hot and cold at the arc this winter, and in a four-game span was 6-of-24 on trey-tries. But he went 3-of-5 against Kentucky so hopefully he's heating back up for February.
*With his four-trey night at Kentucky, G Phil Turner has now hit 24 three-pointers for this season…exactly as many as he had all last year. And he has one less rebound so far this soph season, 83, as he had in 30 games as a freshman.
*Turner also knows about on/off nights, as he bounced back from a 1-of-5 day at the arc against Ole Miss to go 4-of-9 at Lexington. Turner is a 42% long-range gunner so far in SEC action, where he was 34% in pre-SEC play.
*In his 13 starts, Turner has averaged 10.6 points and scored double-digits eight times. Before becoming a starter he was scoring 4.3 points per game off the bench. And as a starter he is shooting 50.5% overall, 45-of-89.