The biggest difference between the MSU Bulldogs of the past 7 games and the MSU Bulldogs of the previous 4 has been their stifling defense. In early season match-ups against Xavier and Oklahoma the MSU guards shut down their more publicized counterparts. It will take a similar type effort for the Bulldogs to be victorious in the Bluegrass State. Derrick Zimmerman and Timothy Bowers have been at their best against marquee level competition. One would wonder if Bogans and Fitch have faced the type of pressure they'll see Sunday. Against Louisville and Michigan State the Wildcats were forced to deal with very physical guard play. They lost both games.
These teams are very close. The Wildcats lead the conference by holding opponents to .399 shooting. MSU is a close 2nd in the SEC holding opponents to .413 shooting. Kentucky is #1 in the conference holding opponents to 55.2 points per game. MSU is #2 in the SEC with opponents scoring 62.5 points per game. UK out-rebounds opponents by 6.0 per game. MSU out-rebounds conference foes by 5.9 per game. MSU leads the SEC in steals with 89. Kentucky is 2nd the league with 88. MSU shoots .335 from three point range. UK shoots .330 from behind the arc. UK leads the SEC in turnover margin at +3.73. MSU leads the SEC in shooting percentage at .478.
For every strength UK has MSU counters with one of it's own. The guard play in a lot of ways is a push. The Z/Bowers combo is more prolific on defense and distributing the basketball. The UK guards look to score first. Look for Z and TB to force the UK tandem to find some other options. UK will use penetration and several screens to get Fitch and Bogan free for open looks. They'll have a tough time creating off the dribble.
What does UK do about Iggy? Michal Ignerski creates some match-up problems for a lot of teams and UK is no exception. With his ability to hit the three Michal forces his man to avoid the temptation to double down on Mario. If Michal can drop a few threes early to keep the defense honest, it should open up some isolation for Mario. This defensive assignment will more than likely fall to Erik Daniels (10.2 ppg). Daniels is very athletic and is a sleeper in a lot of ways. This should be an intriguing match-up. When Vincent spells Iggy, Daniels should expect some pine time or some lost time. Vincent is more physical, and if he brings the same intensity he has shown the past few games, this should be an MSU strength.
Mario Austin is the most accurate shooter in the SEC. UK will look to slow him down with Marquis Estill (10.8 ppg). Estill has size, but lacks true quickness. If Mario can get going early it will force Estill to play defense which he has problems with one on one. Estill likes using his fouls, but against Mario that is not a good decision. Estill is spelled by the lighter Jules Camara. Camara is more athletic and is more of a scoring threat, but is too thin to take the punishment inside. This is a nice advantage for MSU. Mario CANNOT get into foul trouble. Marcus Campbell has improved by leaps and bounds, but we need Mario driving the paint to pull the upset. Campbell vs. Estill is a match-up most basketball fans should enjoy.
The nation will be watching this Sunday on CBS. Most will expect the Blue Crush they saw against Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. UK is prime for the pickings. LSU out hustled them most of the game and had it not been for about a 5 minute cold streak by LSU that featured 3 blown lay-ups the Tigers are right there. MSU has a similar chip on it's shoulder. MSU is the more physical team. The pressure is clearly on UK. Most experts will tell you MSU is a trendy pick, but UK is too strong. Kentucky is due for a bad game. The Bulldog defense has played lights out for the past few games. If the offense gets rolling like it did against Arkansas we may see a repeat of the 1996 SEC Tourney Championship game that showed UK getting outplayed in every area.
I like our chances in this game. UK is dangerous, but as long as the Dogs don't get lulled to sleep and allow UK to go on scoring binges, we have a great chance. The key to this game will be a good start, which has been absent in most games this year. The Bullies cannot afford to get down early, a la Georgia at Athens which just happens to be our last loss. Sunday afternoon, when the Bullies have the ball late with a lead, remember this was no upset. It was the MSU team playing up to the potential the rest of the conference and perhaps nation hoped they'd never realize. Here's hoping for some Maroon Madness!
Until next week,
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.