*First place in the West is already locked up by LSU, and with one more win the Bengals will clinch the overall conference crown. Still, Bulldog teams have won a loop-leading seven West titles, solo or shared, since 1992.
About the Tigers: While those other resurrected Tigers have deservedly drawn the SEC spotlight for their championship run, Auburn's own turnaround season is worthy of praise. A Tiger club notable for little more than lots of frustration the previous four years is suddenly bidding to finish second in the West, in the top-quarter of the overall conference, and even make a case for post-season consideration. Oh, there's plenty left for Jeff Lebo's fifth squad to do before they make more than nice story, with almost no margin for error down the stretch or in Tampa even. Still all the signs are pointing positive for now, as the Tigers have won four of their last five and played LSU to a seven-point final in Baton Rouge last weekend. What is harder to say is exactly how this club is doing it since Auburn doesn't absolutely stand out at any aspect of the game. The easy explanation is that the four-guard lineup is throwing in a lot of long shots, which was true two weeks ago with 13 treys against State. Yet they've made just 19 in the last three games, so it's not so much the quantity as the quality with guards like Tay Waller and DeWayne Reed hitting for three at most opportune moments. Juco Waller has been the key addition this season for sure and in SEC-only play ranks 3rd in outside shooting and second in makes. Reed may be the most-improved second-season guy in the league and not just for his shooting and scoring but his smart work on defense; he's the guy that keys most of the club's steals and doesn't turn it over too much. For most of the schedule size and strength was Auburn's weak points, and while the club is by no means a rebounding machine they've worked harder and better on the boards lately. No Tiger more so than Korvotney Barber, who at 6-7 not only leads the league in SEC-game rebounding at 10.8 but is a whole two boards better than his nearest competitor. And he's second in SEC shooting at 56%, darn good for a natural forward working in the paint. There are a couple of tall bodies on the bench but 6-6 Lucas Hargrove gets most of the work and does pretty well for himself on the glass while stepping out to pop an occasional trey, too. Outside shooting is the forte of freshman guard Frankie Sullivan, too. What Auburn does best is defend the perimeter, both forcing turnovers and contesting trey-tries. What they do worst is shoot free throws…though there's been progress here of late, as the Tigers made 22 of 29 chances against Ole Miss and 24 more against State. They might not dominate a stat sheet, but Auburn is finding ways to win games which is all that matters.
Projected Starting Lineups (all-games stats):
AUBURN: F Korvotney Barber, JR 6-7 225, 12.9ppg, 9.5rpg, 55%fgs; G Tay Waller, JR 6-2 180, 12.8ppg, 82 3ptrs, 37%3ptrs; G Quantez Robertson, JR 6-3 193, 6.0ppg, 4.1rpg; G DeWayne Reed SO 6-1 175, 13.4ppg, 50 3ptrs, 3.9asts; G Rasheem Barrett, JR 6-5 220, 9.0ppg, 2.9rpg, 14 3ptrs.
Top Backups: F Lucas Hargrove, SO 6-6 188, 8.0ppg, 5.5rpg, 21 3ptrs; G Frankie Sullivan, FR 6-1 185, 7.0ppg, 30 3ptrs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: G/F Ravern Johnson, SO 6-7 175, 12.6ppg, 3.4rpg, 70 3ptrs, 43% 3ptrs; G/F Phil Turner, SO 6-3 170, 8.6ppg, 5.1rpg, 35 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, JR 6-9 210, 13.1ppg, 9.1rpg, 56%fgs, 137blks; G Dee Bost, FR 6-2 170, 11.5ppg, 4.4asts, 48 3ptrs; G Barry Stewart, JR 6-3 170, 11.9ppg, 3.8rpg, 55 3ptrs.
Top Backups: G Riley Benock, SO 6-4 180, 2.4ppg, 18 3ptrs; F Romero Osby, FR 6-8 230, 4.7ppg, 2.9rpg.
HOW THEY COMPARE: (all-season stats)
Scoring: MSU 75.2ppg, AUB 72.1ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 69.1ppg, AUB 64.5ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 43.6%, AUB 44.0%
FG Defense: MSU 39.3%, AUB 40.4%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 36.7%, AUB 32.8%
3-point Attempts: MSU 23.0pg, AUB 23.2pg
Rebounding: MSU 38.3rpg, AUB 36.5rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU -1.2, AUB +0.4
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 71.0%, AUB 60.3%
Turnovers: MSU 14.5pg, AUB 13.5pg
THE SERIES: Auburn now holds a 68-62 lead in the rivalry, having just snapped a four-game lost streak to State. In fact the Bulldogs had won 13 of the 15 previous games. State still owns a 37-24 advantage at home, the last Tiger win in Starkville coming in 2000. Rick Stansbury is 13-8 against Auburn, while Jeff Lebo is 3-6 against State.
BULLDOG NOTES: While it hasn't produced the same sort of success as earlier in SEC season, Mississippi State's offense remains dependant on outside shooting. In league play the Dogs average over 27 trey-tries per game. This means 45% of all their shots are taken from long range. The opposition is taking just 31% of shots at the arc.
*Three times in the last four games the Bulldogs have taken 30 or more shots from the arc, including a program-record 39 attempts at Alabama. In all three instances, State lost.
*So with 645 trey-tries through 28 games, State has a, well, shot at breaking the season record for such attempts. That was 775 in 2006-07.
*The Dogs have made 237 threes so far, the third-highest total ever. They only need three more to match second place (1994-95, 240) though it will take at least a couple of good tournament games to catch the record of 275 makes two years ago.
*A year after setting the modern SEC record for field goal defense at 37.0% shooting for the whole season, these Dogs are holding to second place in the current standings at 39.3%.
*Tennessee had just four shots swatted by State Wednesday night. But the Dogs still have a 8.1 average for the year, and lead the current NCAA statistics ahead of Connecticut. Last winter the two teams battled for the blocks title, with UConn edging State out at the end.
*The 226 blocks in 28 games is also ahead of last year's pace (7.85) when State set the SEC record with 267 blocks.
*By contrast, State foes have blocked just 86 Bulldog shots…a stat obviously reflecting the team's reliance on outside shooting.
*With his 137 blocks this season C Jarvis Varnado continues to lead the NCAA and SEC for another week, ahead of UConn's Hasheem Thabeet. And if he keeps the current pace of 4.9 per-game, Varnado can match his own MSU sole record and shared SEC mark of 157 blocks in a season in just the remaining regular-season and assured league tourney games.
*Varnado just became the SEC's second-leading shot blocker in history, with 361 in three seasons. He surpassed the 360, in four years, by former Auburn center Kyle Davis. The league career mark will have to wait to next season; 412 by Shaquille O'Neal of LSU in three seasons.
*Offensively, Varnado has run hot-and-cold the last two weeks scoring 20 points, then eight; 16, and eight. His season average of 13.1 points is still tops on the team, but for SEC play he's third at 13.4 points.
*Varnado took only four shots at Tennessee, making three of them. That was the fewest attempts by the center since January3.
*At least his accuracy in Knoxville was encouraging, as in the previous seven SEC games he had shot just 42% from the floor.
*Opponents focus on keeping Varnado away from the glass and it has cut into his rebound chances. While he had 11 rebounds in double-overtime at Alabama, the junior managed just six Wednesday night. His current average of 9.1 rebounds is a season-low.
*For February, Varnado has made 31 of 39 free throws giving him a SEC-season rate of 79%. In the same month he has made 38 field goals.
*For February, G Phil Turner has been a monster on the glass. Though just 6-3, the soph has muscled for 68 rebounds in the seven games and raised his SEC average to a remarkable 6.7.
*Twice in the last three weeks Turner has grabbed 11 rebounds, giving him a pair of double-double SEC outings.
*Hopefully a 4-of-8 shooting night at UT (1-of-4 at the arc) shows Turner is getting the touch back. For the previous four games he shot 13-of-40 overall and 6-of-25 on treys.
*Turner has made 82% of his free throws in SEC action.
*Turner has not fouled-out in a SEC game so far.
*G Dee Bost should be an automatic choice for the SEC All-Freshman team, if not rookie of the year. He actually is State's leading scorer now in conference play at 14.0 points.
*Bost has scored double-digits in his last eight games and upped his all-season average to 11.5 points.
*Bost is the fourth Bulldog freshman with 100 assists, and now has the third-best year by a rookie with 123. He is closing in on #2 Rich Knarr (127, 1973) and the freshman record of 129 by Jamont Gordon in 2006 is just one really big game away.
*In his last two games Bost is 7-of-16 on trey-tries. For SEC season he's made 39% of such shots, best on the squad.
*And look who is getting to the foul line most often? Bost has had 70 trips in SEC season, six ahead of G Barry Stewart and a dozen more than Varnado. The rookie has also hit 73% in league play.
*His 35.3 minutes averaged in SEC games is most on the team.
*The only thing Bost hasn't done this whole year is block a shot.
*Stewart has strung together consecutive 20-point games for the first time this season, in fact for his career, with 20 markers against both Alabama and Tennessee. He has scored double-digits in the last eight games, also a career-first.
*The 30th member of the 1,000-Point Club at State, Stewart now has 1,067 points in three years.
*Stewart had been struggling at long range with accuracy, but in the last two games he is 7-of-19 at the arc. He now has 185 treys in his career, and ranks 3rd on the all-time Bulldog list behind only Timmy Bowers (197) and Darryl Wilson (258).
*Stewart has made good on 39 of his last 46 free throw attempts. He's up to 78% for SEC season.
*G Ravern Johnson is back on a scoring track with 63 points the last four games, raising his SEC-season average back to 12.8; better than his all-season rate of 12.6 points.
*Johnson was also looking like the shooter of late January, as he hit 4-of-9 at the arc against Tennessee. Still for February as a whole the soph is just 17-of-52 on trey-tries, where in the first month of the calendar he was 26-of-54.
*At one point Johnson was leading the NCAA in outside accuracy at 49%. He's down to 43% for the season now, and 38.5% for SEC season.
*Johnson now has 70 treys for the season, tying him for the fifth-best year in program history. He's caught up with both Timmy Bowers in 2003 and Marcus Bullard in 1996.
*After failing to get an offensive rebound in his first nine SEC games, Johnson has fought for seven in the last four games.