In-state talent on display

Six of the 10 starters will be native Tennesseans when SEC East Division leader Tennessee and West Division leader Mississippi State collide tonight at 7 (EST) in Starkville.

And, what's even more surprising: None of the six is from Memphis – the state's acknowledged basketball hotbed.

The Vols' starters include Tyler Smith (Pulaski), Wayne Chism (Bolivar) and JaJuan Smith (Athens). The Bulldogs' starters include Jamont Gordon (Nashville), Jarvis Varnado (Brownsville) and Barry Stewart (Shelbyville).

That's a pretty impressive assemblage of talent for a state not known for producing high school basketball stars.

Tennessee, 18-2 overall and 5-1 in league play, is ranked No. 7 nationally. One shudders to think how good the Vols would be if head coach Bruce Pearl had managed three years ago to convince Gordon and Varnado to play for their home-state university.

Gordon, a 6-4, 230-pound point guard, might be the SEC's most valuable player. He's averaging 17.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Varnado, a 6-9, 210-pound forward, averages 7.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and an NCAA-best 5.1 blocked shots per game. He has 101 blocks to date, which is double the total of anyone else in the SEC and 36 more than Tennessee has as a team.

Basically, tonight's game pits the SEC's best offense against the league's best defense. The Vols lead the conference in scoring (84.9 points per game), 3 pointers (9.5 per game) and assists (19.85 per game). The Bulldogs lead the league in scoring defense (62.2 points per game), field-goal defense (36.0 percent) and blocked shots (8.6 per game). The field-goal defense figure ranks No. 2 nationally.

"They have a real good physical presence," Pearl said. "They're really athletic. It's all about matchups: How can we stop them and how can we score?"

Mississippi State might be the toughest matchup in the SEC for Tennessee. The Bulldogs have the size and athleticism to give the Vols fits on the inside. Varnado's cohort underneath is rugged 6-8, 245-pound senior Charles Rhodes, who averages 14.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. In addition, the Bulldogs' three-guard lineup may be quick enough to contain UT's signature fast-break offense. Gordon and Stewart are joined in the backcourt by Phil Turner.

Mississippi State, 14-6 overall and also 5-1 in league play, should be highly motivated. Rick Stansbury's team is coming off a disappointing 20-point loss at Arkansas. Like the Vols, the Dogs have a national ranking (No. 25) and an eye on the SEC regular-season title. Tonight's winner will take a huge step toward achieving that goal.

Speaking in uncharacteristic understatement, Pearl noted that: "The game could have implications involving the SEC championship."

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