*State is 4-0 at home in league play and has five SEC games in The Hump in the second half of the schedule.
*Auburn has a 69-62 lead in the series including a sweep of last year's two games. For the most part though the Bulldogs dominated the decade's results, having 13 of the last 17 games going back to mid-2001. State is 37-25 at home against the Tigers, and Rick Stansbury holds a 13-9 record in the rivalry; all of them regular-season meetings.
About the Tigers: Why, yes, there really are teams out there that chunk up more three-pointers than Mississippi State. Here's one of them. Not that anyone familiar with Tiger basketball in the Jeff Lebo era is surprised. His five previous teams have relied, for better and worse, on outside shooting and upbeat pace of play at each end. It finally paid off last winter with ten SEC wins and a second place West finish, though that only earned a NIT berth. Technically just two starters are back; realistically this is a veteran team able to start four or five seniors if wished. So it's interesting that despite scheduling wisely (i.e. weakly) this winter the Tigers still struggled through pre-SEC play with no notable wins. Maybe though the approach, and all that experience, is finally paying off as Auburn is performing better lately. Even the losses are looking more respectable; by five to Kentucky, eight to Vanderbilt, and overtime at Arkansas. Defense is obviously not the strong point here, unless the opponent is vulnerable to a fairly frenzied backcourt approach that is producing steals and turnovers. Just part of getting the other guy to play at your preferred pace, of course, because otherwise Auburn is last in SEC-game scoring and shooting defense. The Tigers also have their own turnover issues by the way so it usually evens out. No, the plan here again is throw the ball at the basket as often as possible and hope enough of them go in. And they have a roster willing and able to do so as everybody in the rotation, save senior center Brendon Knox, fires away freely. Whether he starts or subs, Knox is a much-improved post from his 2.5 point, 1.7 board rate of last winter, and his 23 blocks lead the team…right, not saying a lot. Also typical of Lebo squads the ‘power' player inside is a mid-sized forward, top rebounder on the club at 6-6. But he isn't confined to paint on offense as he's hit 22 treys. DeWayne Reed led in scoring as a junior at 13.2; he's upped that to almost 16-per as a senior with improved accuracy without backing off his assists-pace. Soph Frankie Sullivan is the young cat among the regulars and for half the year was option-one at the arc. That was until senior Tay Waller returned to duty. He's made up for missed games with 48 treys already, though he certainly won't get to 100 longballs as he did last winter. Lebo has a couple of 6-5 frosh swingmen seeing regular duty and, naturally, shooting from long. It's a formula that can be fun to watch and keep the Tigers in contention, but winning has been harder up to now. Oh, and if it's close at the end, defenses will only worry about keeping the ball out of Sullivan's hands as a 87% free throw man. The team as a whole is only 65% at the stripe.
Projected Starting Lineups:
AUBURN: F Johnnie Lett, SR 6-8 210, 2.3ppg, 3.4rpg; F Lucas Hargrove, SR 6-6 218, 13.7ppg, 7.3rpg, 22 3ptrs; G Tay Waller, SR 6-2 190, 13.1ppg, 48 3ptrs; G Frankie Sullivan, SO 6-1 195, 13.3ppg, 3.8rpg, 55 3ptrs; G DeWayne Reed, SR 6-1 175, 15.8ppg, 38 3ptrs, 104 asts.
Top Backups: C Brendon Knox, SR 6-10 238, 8.5ppg, 3.9rpg, 23 blks; G Earnest Ross, FR 6-5 215, 2.9ppg, 10 3ptrs; G Andre Malone, FR 6-5 210, 3.3ppg, 10 3ptrs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Kodi Augustus, JR 6-8 220, 8.9ppg, 5.5rpg, 21 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, SR 6-9, 13.4ppg, 11.3rpg, 120 blks; G/F Ravern Johnson, JR 6-7 175, 14.1ppg, 3.5rpg, 64 3ptrs; G Barry Stewart, SR 6-3 170, 11.4ppg, 56 asts, 49 3ptrs; PG Dee Bost, SO 6-2 170, 11.2ppg, 126 asts, 37 3ptrs.
Top Backups: G/F Phil Turner, JR 6-3 170, 5.9ppg, 4.8rpg; F Romero Osby, SO 6-8 230, 4.9ppg, 2.9rpg; G Riley Benock, JR 6-4 180, 1.8ppg, 12 3ptrs.
HOW THEY COMPARE (Full Season Stats):
Scoring: MSU 72.8, AUB 75.7
Scoring Defense: MSU 62.0, AUB 73.0
FG Shooting: MSU 43.5%, AUB 44.6%
FG Defense: MSU 37.0%, AUB 45.3%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 36.7%, AUB 32.3%
3-point Attempts: MSU 24.2, AUB 25.2
Rebounding: MSU 41.2, AUB 35.6
Rebound Margin: MSU +5.1, AUB +0.5
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 68.0%, AUB 64.4%
Turnovers: MSU 13.5, AUB 14.3
BULLDOG NOTES: G Barry Stewart and C Jarvis Varnado hold the program record for career games played with 129 and counting in four seasons. They erased the mark set in 2003 of 127 by Derrick Zimmerman.
*Live by the longball, or lose by lack thereof. That is the Mississippi State offense this SEC season. In their five wins the Bulldogs are 41-of-116 at the arc, or 35%. In the four losses they are 24-of-101 or 24%.
*But the Dogs can defend the arc quite well, allowing just 32% shooting in all SEC games and 21% in the last two games.
*State has given up 80 SEC points just once this year, and that was a win over Arkansas. Six league foes, win or loss, have scored under 70 points against MSU.
*Naturally that defense is based upon blocking short shots, where State continues to lead the league with 73 swats in SEC play and 195 for the year. At this pace the Bulldogs could still break their own SEC-season record of 271 blocks in 36 games (7.5) set just last March.
*It was the game C Jarvis Varnado had been needing. After struggling with 39% shooting in the last five outings, the senior settled for five attempts against Ole Miss and made four, much more like the selective shooting of his early January successes.
*In State's league wins Varnado is 27-of-46 shooting; in the losses he is 18-of-48.
*And being picky didn't stop Varnado from posting his fourth-straight double-double, his 14th of the year and 29th career. Varnado is averaging a double-double for his senior season, the first Bulldog to do so since Lawrence Roberts in 2005.
*Thursday night Varnado joined the Top-20 State scorers club with 1,229 points blowing by Dave Williams (1,219 1966-68) and Leland Mitchell (1,219 1961-63). He's now just a bucket behind Erick Dampier (1994-96) for 17th place.
*The SEC's leading rebounder, both overall and league games, Varnado is closing in on his second 300-board season. He has 271 so far this year.
*And he now has 998 career boards. Saturday he will join Bailey Howell (1957-59) and Rickey Brown (1977-80) as the only Bulldogs with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
*Oh, right, the blocked shots. He's had a slow week with five total swats the last two games but his SEC lead (and #2 national status) are safe with 126 on the year. His 5.25 average game this year is way ahead of the 4.72 rate last winter when he set the SEC season record of 170.
*He has blocked a shot in 41-straight games.
*As of mid-February, Varnado has 514 career blocks, second most in college history. The NCAA record of 535 is only four more games away.
*G Barry Stewart has been Mr. Reliable in SEC season, the only Dog to score double-digits in every league game.
*He also was able to score double-digits in seven of his regular-season career games against Ole Miss.
*Stewart was already a top-twenty State scorer. Now he's trying to reach the top-ten club. With 1,451 points in four years he just caught former teammate Charles Rhodes (2005-08) for 11th place. If he gets double-digits Saturday, he'll pass #10 Cameron Burns (1,460 1989-91).
*He is also not far from setting the program record for made-treys. He has 251 now, within a week's range of the 258 mark held since 1996 by Darryl Wilson. Stewart's 691 attempts at the arc is the record.
*Stewart is 14-of-34 at the arc the last five games.
*His 145 steals rank 7th on the Bulldog career list.
*Stewart is the only Bulldog ever to play 4,000 career minutes. He now has put in 4,013 minutes in four seasons.
*Stewart has played 37, 38, and 38 minutes the last three games.
*Signs were encouraging when G Ravern Johnson hit four-of-ten outside attempts in two games. Then he torched Ole Miss with 4-of-7 shooting at the arc. It was the junior's best output since the Mississippi Valley game back in December.
*Johnson has scored 38 points in the last two games.
*While his SEC accuracy of 35% at the arc is not up to last year's standard, Johnson still has thrown in eight treys in the last three games. That gives him 64 for the season. As a soph Johnson made 83 longballs, the third-best total in program history. He's got to get really hot though if he is to catch Darryl Wilson's 1996 mark of 97.
*Johnson now has 154 treys in three seasons and is 8th already on the MSU career list. Next-up is the 160 by Winsome Frazier (2002-05).
*Inside the arc, Johnson is State's most efficient SEC shooter. He's 30-of-47 on two-point attempts, or 64%.
*PG Dee Bost added three assists Thursday, giving him 126 for the year. He had 156 scoring passes as a freshman, setting a MSU class record.
*With 282 career assists soph Bost should move into the MSU top ten (he needs 314) before the regular season is over.
*But his shooting has been frustrating since SEC season tipped off; 34% overall and 21% at the arc. Take away the first two league games and he is 5-of-34 on trey-tries the last seven. He hit 38% in pre-SEC play.
*Going inside the arc might be a good idea for Bost, as the last four games he is 4-of-7 on two-point tries.
*Bost has started all 60 of his college games, the only Dog on this roster who has never come off the bench.
*F Romero Osby has had an up-and-down sophomore season. But he's been money against Ole Miss, shooting 5-of-9 in two games off the bench versus the Rebels and playing reliable defense.
*G Riley Benock took and made his first two-point attempt of SEC season Thursday night; an open layup. Otherwise he is 2-of-9 at the arc this league season.
*G/F Phil Turner has been consistent on the board lately. He's had at least four and as many as seven rebounds in the last eight games.
*But Thursday night his free throwing took a turn; after making 20-of-23 attempts in SEC play he missed both chances against the Rebels.
*State starters have accounted for 83% of scoring in SEC play.