*Tennessee is a game behind three East leaders but has beaten two of them with the rematches coming after this game. They lost both their games with Kentucky though.
*The Bulldogs are probably pleased to be headed East again, with a 4-0 record against that Division.
About the Volunteers: It's doubtful even the most devout Vol fans truly believed their lofty pre-season predictions, given how much all-star talent left town. A most ambitious schedule, ranked toughest in the land, gave Tennessee sufficient opportunities to prove that A) they are indeed rebuilding and B) there's some mighty impressive young talent to do so with. Fitting all the pieces in places hasn't been automatic and the growing pains have included some interesting losses …along with enough quality wins to remind that this bunch will only get better. The all-underclassman starting lineup does have some familiar faces from the high-octane Orange attacks of the last two years. After two good seasons supporting the stars, junior Tyler Smith has taken on the top-dog role and upped his scoring almost two buckets-per, without losing his knack for dishing to open teammates. With some perimeter prowess graduated, the inside game is a, umm, bigger part of the plan now and 6-9 Wayne Chism is rising to the occasion at each end of the floor. '08 backup forward J.P. Prince has moved into the tipoff team to help out on the boards, an area Tennessee has been somewhat vulnerable during SEC season. The real change of pace has been out beyond the arc where gunners like Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith are really missed. Though ‘miss' is a word heard too often these days as UT ranks 11th in SEC outside accuracy. Rookie Scotty Hopson was supposed to step in and shoot and he's certainly put it up but is just 18-of-50 at the arc in league games. Center Chism has 14 treys by contrast. The real concern though is out on the point, a position in-flux this year. Rookie Bobby Maze has started six league games with mixed results, so junior Josh Tabb is now in the lineup despite negligible stats. Most of the bench minutes go to backup center Brian Williams or forward Cameron Tatum, bigger bodies that don't lend themselves as well to the hurry-up, whole-court style that was UT's trademark. Yet this hasn't brought big improvement on defense where the Vols have struggled both inside and outside. Of course the theme to remember remains, a work in progress…and given Bruce Pearl's track record that pace will only accelerate as these guys age.
Projected Starting Lineups (all-games stats):
TENNESSEE: F Tyler Smith, JR 6-7 215, 17.2ppg, 5.7rpg, 21 3ptrs; C Wayne Chism, JR 6-9 242, 13.1ppg, 8.4rpg, 24 3ptrs; G/F J.P. Prince, JR 6-7 205, 9.7ppg, 4.0rpg, 55%fgs; G Scotty Hopson, FR 6-7 185, 9.1ppg, 2.3rpg, 34 3ptrs; G Josh Tabb, JR 6-4 195, 3.2ppg, 42 asts.
Top Backups: G Bobby Maze, JR 6-2 185, 8.4ppg, 86asts; F Brian Williams, SO 6-10 265, 5.1ppg, 5.7rpg.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: G/F Ravern Johnson, SO 6-7 175, 12.4ppg, 3.5rpg, 66 3ptrs, 43% 3ptrs; G/F Phil Turner, SO 6-3 170, 8.6ppg, 5.0rpg, 34 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, JR 6-9 210, 13.3ppg, 9.3rpg, 56%fgs, 134blks; G Dee Bost, FR 6-2 170, 11.3ppg, 118asts, 45 3ptrs; G Barry Stewart, JR 6-3 170, 11.6ppg, 3.9rpg, 52 3ptrs.
Top Backups: G Riley Benock, SO 6-4 180, 2.5ppg, 18 3ptrs; F Romero Osby, FR 6-8 230, 4.9ppg, 2.9rpg.
HOW THEY COMPARE: (all-season stats)
Scoring: MSU 75.2ppg, TENN 78.3ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 68.7, TENN 72.5ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 43.5%, TENN 45.2%
FG Defense: MSU 39.0%, TENN 44.3%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 36.7%, TENN 30.6%
3-point Attempts: MSU 27.8, TENN 21.3
Rebounding: MSU 38.6rpg, TENN 38.4rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU -1.0, TENN +3.3
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 70.8%, TENN 67.9%
Turnovers: MSU 14.4pg, TENN 13.6pg
THE SERIES: Tennessee leads 73-38 in a series dating back to 1924. The Vols own a whopping 42-9 advantage in Knoxville, where State last won in 1999 and has lost on the last four visits. Tennessee owns a four-game streak overall with MSU's last success in 2004. Rick Stansbury is 4-7 against Tennessee, while Bruce Pearl is 3-0 against State.
BULLDOG NOTES: For the first time this season State has lost a SEC game while shooting over 30% at the arc…though they were barely over it against Alabama at 30.8%. In the other four league losses the Dogs were in the 20%s.
*Double-overtime allowed the Bulldogs to take four more long shots, and thus break the program record of 35 trey attempts in a game with 39. Though, that previous record was also set this season twice; against Nicholls State and at Auburn.
*In their dozen SEC games, the Dogs are averaging 27 trey-tries per contest. In fact 44% of State's shots in SEC play come from beyond the arc; whereas league opponents have put up just 31% of their attempts from long range.
*With 615 trey-tries already on the books, this team needs to play seven more games to top the season mark of 775 fired two winters ago.
*Mississippi State set the modern SEC record for field goal defense last year at 37.0%-allowed. This team is holding foes (all season) to 39.0%, but that trails Kentucky (37.6%) in the latest league standings.
*State still leads the nation in blocks with 8.2 per game, ahead of Connecticut's 7.6. Last year the Huskies edged out the Bulldogs for first in the final NCAA stats.
*State's 222 blocks in 27 games is ahead of last year's pace when the Dogs set the SEC season record of 267 swats in 34 games (7.85).
*With 134 blocks so far, C Jarvis Varnado continues to lead both the SEC and NCAA for another week. He's 16 ahead of Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet in the national chase. Varnado has more blocked shots than nine SEC teams.
*With 358 blocks through three seasons, Varnado is about to take over the SEC's second place all-time. That slot belongs for the moment to former Auburn center Kyle Davis at 360.
*Varnado doubled his offense from the South Carolina game with 16 points at Alabama, raising his scoring average back to 13.3; best on the squad. The junior had been scoring 13.4 after consecutive games of 31 and 20 points against LSU and Auburn.
*But Varnado's shooting has been steadily slipping through SEC season. Since a 6-of-7 night at Georgia, he has made just 33-of-78 or 42%. In his first five SEC games he hit a hot 66.7%
*A 34-minute stint at Alabama allowed Varnado to grab a total 11 rebounds, or as many as the previous two games combined. It was his first double-digit day on the boards since the trip to Kentucky.
*Saturday was Varnado's sixth double-double effort of the year but his first since…the home game with Alabama on January 14.
*For the season Varnado is shooting almost 72% on free throws, best of his career. But he's been even better in SEC play at 44-of-54, 82%. Varnado shot 74 free throws in his first two college seasons combined; he has made 88 this season, in 123 attempts.
*The unexpected Bulldog beast on the backboards in February has been G Phil Turner. The smallest ‘big forward' in the league, he has muscled for 60 rebounds in the six games this month. He's averaging 5.0 boards for the whole season, 6.6 in SEC play.
*Turner has posted a pair of double-doubles in the last two weeks. After notching 16 points/11 rebounds against Arkansas at home, he posted a 16/11 evening against South Carolina.
*But his shooting has gone south the last two weeks. For the past four games Turner is 13-of-40 overall and 6-of-25 at the arc.
*G Dee Bost ought to be a shoo-in for the SEC's Freshman team. The fourth Bulldog rookie to reach 100 assists, he now has 118 on the year; the third-best such season. He needs 127 to catch Rich Knarr (1973) and the record is just a couple passes beyond at 129 by Jamont Gordon in 2006.
*Bost has a streak of double-digit scoring going, now at seven games to raise his SEC average to 13.8 points—equal of Varnado.
*While his 38% SEC shooting can certainly improve, Bost hasn't shied away from taking his attempts. He has shot the ball ten or more times in six of the last seven games. And while his coach wants the rookie to attack the goal more often, over half his attempts have come from beyond the arc.
*But Bost is doing a very good job working his way to the foul line. He has attempted more free throws than Varnado, in fact, for SEC season, and made 71% of them. In league play Bost has made 45 free throws and 47 field goals.
*For a perimeter player, Bost does a great job chasing down rebounds with 26 in the last six games.
*G Barry Stewart doubled his output from the South Carolina game with 20 points against Alabama. He's had double-digits in the last seven contests including a season-best 22 against Arkansas.
*Stewart is the 30th member of the 1,000-Point Club at State. He now has 1,047 in 96 career games.
*Stewart added four treys to his career total Saturday, giving him 182 in three seasons. He trails only Timmy Bowers (197) and Darryl Wilson (258) on the MSU all-time list.
*Stewart has made good on 34 of his last 40 free throw attempts.
*At Alabama, Stewart notched his first double-digit rebound day with ten boards against the Tide. It was the first double-double game of his college career.
*Stewart has made himself a force on the boards lately, with 31 rebounds in the last four games.
*After five points in two tough games, G Ravern Johnson is back on scoring track with 11, 20, and 14 points the last three contests, getting his SEC average back up to 12.4; or the same as his whole-season rate.
*But defenders are making it tougher for the soph to get as many open treys as he did in January. In the last five games Johnson is 8-of-35 at the arc, and his SEC accuracy there is down to 38%. He had been hitting over 50% midway through league play.
*With 66 treys, Johnson has the 9th-most in a season in State history.
*Johnson is making up for some shooting slumps by working harder on the glass, with four rebounds in each of the last three games including six offensive boards. He had not caught a carom off that end in the first nine SEC games.