Scouting Report: Mississippi State

One bubble-licious game against an SEC West team deserves another. It's time for Vanderbilt to make that quick Thursday-Saturday turnaround and take on Mississippi State.


There's no time for rest, and no time to waste in posting this preview before it gets stale. When you're done digesting the Alabama postgame scene, save a little stomach space for another game preview. The "SEC resume construction tour" continues for coach Kevin Stallings and Co. against an opponent that will throw a lot of length onto the floor this Saturday evening. Vanderbilt needs to be fresh against Mississippi State. While the Bulldogs played (with little energy) on Wednesday, Vanderbilt faced a much tougher foe on Thursday night. Dead legs can't be allowed to interfere with the pursuit of an NCAA Tournament bid.

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE

It is at once the great possibility and the great problem with Mississippi State basketball: The Bulldogs own an appreciable degree of talent. MSU teams usually field impressive physical specimens, uncut gems who can do so much on a 94-foot-long court. That's a great problem to have, but when the Bulldogs don't fulfill their potential, it becomes a bad problem.

In 1996, then-coach Richard Williams's team – following a Sweet 16 run in 1995 – put together the big March push that landed Mississippi State in its first – and only – Final Four. It's the word "only" which defines current coach Rick Stansbury's tenure in Starkville. He pulls in quality athletes but can't coach them up… not, at least, to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State hasn't made one Sweet 16 since Stansbury came aboard in 1998. Why is this the case? It's hard to say, but similar patterns continue to replicate themselves. Mississippi State struggles to play cohesive halfcourt offense during the season. The Bulldogs take games off at the defensive end of the floor. In general, they look discombobulated for much of the year and don't get the memo that the NIT is coming their way until it's too late. In 2009, MSU won the SEC Tournament to steal an NCAA bid, and the Bulldogs came within an eyelash of doing the same thing in the 2010 SEC Tournament. Mississippi State teams show their potential by the midpoint of the season, spend much of the SEC slate flailing and floundering, and then make a charge at the very end of the season. This trajectory sometimes lands the Bulldogs in the Big Dance, but they rarely get a high seed that can usher them through a cake draw and on to the Sweet 16. (If Vanderbilt could similarly max out in the regular season and get a No. 3 seed instead of a five seed, the Dores would have an easier time of it in the first round.)

This season, MSU is on schedule… no, not from its own point of view, but in terms of the Bulldogs' typical penchant for giving their fans a strong case of heartburn. In November, Mississippi State looked like a near shoo-in for the Big Dance when it took down Texas A&M and Arizona at Madison Square Garden in New York. However, the twin collapses of the Aggies and Wildcats have taken away the value of those wins. They're still top-150 wins on a neutral court, but they're not top-50 or top-25 wins. MSU's best scalp so far is a victory over West Virginia. A loss to Akron isn't all that bad – the Zips might make back-to-back NCAA appearances this season – but the beginning of SEC play has witnessed Mississippi State at its worst, a familiar and depressing sight for the people of Starkville.

It might be excusable to lose at Arkansas, but it's definitely not excusable to surrender 98 points to a roster of Razorbacks that's not about to leave a mark on the rest of the SEC. It might be understandable to lose in a rivalry game, but Ole Miss has no business beating Mississippi State if the Bulldogs are serious about making the NCAAs this year. If you look at the rest of the SEC slate, you'll quickly notice that the proliferation of weak-sister SEC West opponents means that Mississippi State doesn't have many more opportunities to register quality wins. A road trip to Florida won't be tough, and a home game against Kentucky will obviously be the Humphrey Coliseum clash of the year on the MSU campus. The point is plain, however: If MSU can't win at Vanderbilt, the calendar will shrink. Stansbury will feel the heat, and his players won't be able to escape the glare of bubble scrutiny. The Bulldogs need to take down at least one SEC East powerhouse while going 12-4 in the SEC and making the SEC Tournament semifinals if they want to feel really good about their chances on Selection Sunday. Anything less could allow another team to steal their bid… just as MSU stole a bid from Saint Mary's on Selection Sunday of 2009 when it beat Tennessee for the SEC tourney championship in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Arnett Moultrie –
Junior, 6-11, 230 2011-12: 16.1 ppg, 11 rpg, .577 field goal percentage

Moultrie, a transfer from UTEP, played in the 2010 NCAA Tournament for the Miners. Interestingly enough, he played for a UTEP team which took the court to face Butler at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, 35 minutes after Vanderbilt lost to Murray State on that first-round Thursday. Moultrie will now experience even closer proximity to Vanderbilt basketball, and he'll do so with a March Madness credential in hand. Moultrie owns 10 double-doubles so far this season, and it's because he heavily invests his time and energy in the art of rebounding. Not all big men snap down rebounds with regularity; some are hampered by a lack of leaping ability. Moultrie can sky. Some post players don't board at a prolific rate because they can get muscled around. Moultrie owns 230 chiseled pounds and will not back down from a good loose-ball scrap underneath the basket. Some big men lack good ball instincts. Moultrie has a nose for the rock. As a result, he cleans the window. He's not a polished scorer – he doesn't possess a particularly dangerous face-up shot or any other weapon which would make him an elite all-tool player – but his boardwork enables Moultrie to accumulate second-chance points and foul shots on an appreciably consistent basis. Vanderbilt has been bludgeoned by opponents in the past; VU has to limit Moultrie's effectiveness on the boards if it wants to have a good chance of winning.

Forward – Renardo Sidney – Junior, 6-10, 270; 2011-12: 10.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg

Mississippi State seems to get an imposing big man every now and then. Erick Dampier was one, Jarvis Varnado another. Renardo (Sidney) was supposed to be another Varnado, but it hasn't turned out that way for Stansbury and the MSU staff. His time in Starkville has been clouded by problems that only he himself can address. Sidney's sense of entitlement and his complaints about Stansbury – before he ever distinguished himself on the court (something he still hasn't done; not at the highest levels of competition, at any rate…) – have cast a pall over his collegiate career. At 6-10 and 270 pounds, he could be such a formidable presence, a presence that can score 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting and yank down 9 rebounds on Wednesday against Ole Miss. However, it's worth noting that Ole Miss still outrebounded Sidney, Moultrie, and the rest of the MSU lineup in that game. It's also necessary to point out that Sidney's persistent lack of discipline gets him into foul trouble and takes him off the floor. His attitude hurts his team in key moments instead of giving the Bulldogs an extra lift in crunch time. Vanderbilt, though, can't look at Sidney as a problem child. The Commodores need to stand up to Sidney's strength and size in the paint, or they'll get wiped off the glass.

Guard – Rodney Hood – Freshman, 6-8, 180; 2011-12: 11.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg

On that 1996 Mississippi State Final Four team, Erick Dampier was the straw that stirred the drink, but wing man Dontae Jones powered the Bulldogs to East Rutherford, New Jersey (the site of that year's Final Four) with his shooting and scoring from the perimeter. Hood could be MSU's next Jones, a perimeter scorer who can make the Bulldogs' backcourt a headache. Hood, at 6-8, can shoot over the top of most defenders. This helps explain why he's hitting 41 percent of his threes (.408 to be exact), making him a very tough assignment for any opposing head coach. Yet, Hood's presence on the court only makes you scratch your head and wonder why MSU got outrebounded by Ole Miss. Hood's 6-8 frame – coupled with the leaping ability of the 6-11 Moultrie and the power of the 6-10 Sidney – only serves to underscore how much these Bulldogs are failing to play to their capabilities, particularly on defense.

Guard – Brian Bryant – Senior, 6-3, 160; 2011-12: 7.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg

If there's one player who won't scare Vanderbilt in some way when the Dores play defense, it's Bryant. He's reticent to shoot threes, and he doesn't get to the line as much, though his relative lack of foul shots can also be attributed to the fact that three of his teammates in the starting five are 6-8 or taller. Bryant is a quick perimeter defender who, despite a rail-thin body, throws himself into the fray near the tin and helps the bigs – Moultrie and Sidney – on the glass. Vanderbilt won't want to challenge Bryant too directly at the offensive end of the floor because the Dores will want to make other Bulldogs – especially Sidney and Bost – work so hard that they'll have little left in the tank for MSU's offensive possessions.

Guard – Dee Bost – Senior, 6-2, 176; 2011-12: 16 ppg, 4.4 apg, 3.1 rpg

Here is Mississippi State's endgame shot-taker and climb-on-my-back playmaker. Bost is, in a sense, a microcosm of his program: He doesn't seem to make all that much of an impact until the hour grows urgent and late. Bost is actually not a distinguished pure shooter. He hits 33 percent of his threes and has hovered near that percentage throughout his four seasons at Mississippi State. His assist-to-turnover ratio is smaller than 2-to-1, which is not where Stansbury (or any head coach) would like it to be. Yet, Bost makes up for his deficiencies by shooting the ball with extra confidence in late-game situations. He chewed up Vanderbilt in the semis of the 2010 SEC Tournament, and he shredded Alabama with three late-stage triples this past Saturday in a crucial SEC West bubble battle. Vanderbilt doesn't have to go out of its way to help out on Bost in the first 35 minutes, but in the final five minutes, the Dores need to know that Bost will more than likely take the big shots for the Bulldogs.

Bench

Stansbury uses a three-man bench within an eight-man rotation. Wendell Lewis, Jalen Steele, and Deville Smith are called upon to relieve a starting five that is expected to carry the load for the Bulldogs. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about anything in Lewis's portfolio of stats. Steele is a perimeter defender who – in four of his last five games – has scored exactly six points by hitting two threes. He won't shoot often, and he probably won't hurt Vanderbilt with dribble penetration. Smith has done virtually nothing for Mississippi State this season, but on Jan. 7 at Arkansas he came out of nowhere to score 25 points on 6-of-8 shooting from three-point range. For that reason alone, he can't be forgotten when he steps onto the floor.

Keys to the Game

1) Start the ball rolling with ball movement.
Mirabile dictu – an offense-first game key for the Commodores! Amazing, isn't it? However, it seems warranted to decrease the focus on defense in this particular contest. Why? Mississippi State poses a formidable challenge on the glass. Vanderbilt must counteract MSU's rebounding ability by shooting at a high percentage and/or getting to the charity stripe. Therefore, the Dores need to move the ball faster than the Bulldogs can rotate. Even more specifically, they need to make the Bulldogs' long defenders – Moultrie, Sidney and Hood – move side to side so that driving lanes can emerge, paving the way for foul shots and a good points-per-possession average. Ball movement leads to floor spacing, which leads to driving lanes, which leads to made shots or free throws, which lead to diminished MSU rebounding totals. That's the great chain of concepts at work in this game for Vanderbilt. Moreover, good ball movement will also force the Bulldogs to work very hard on defense, making them that much more tired at the other end of the court. The Commodores can break MSU's will by executing at a high level.

2) If rebounding does become a factor, well, get to it! If Vanderbilt doesn't shoot at a high percentage or get to the line, the Dores – who have a history of doing things the hard way – will just have to redouble their efforts and win a street fight within six feet of the basket. Toughness always needs to be a foremost ingredient in a Vanderbilt basketball performance, so if the shots don't fall and Stallings's halfcourt offense doesn't sing, the Dores will have to be ready to muck it up on the boards and find an alternate path to victory.

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