Scouting Report: Mississippi State
Would it be nice if Vanderbilt, currently 11th in the SEC standings, can escape to the No. 10 position and thereby avoid having to play on Wednesday, March 13, in the first round of the SEC Tournament? Obviously. Moreover, if VU can tie Texas A&M in the standings, the Dores, by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker, would escape the first round. That's what this team is playing for in the coming two weeks.
Yet, one will admit that avoiding the first round of a five-day tournament is, for the most part, an exercise in prolonging the inevitable end of the season for Vanderbilt. There's real value in the pursuit of a No. 10 seed in Nashville, but said value exists on a small scale. It's a lot more important to use this time to build for next season, and part of that process is enhanced by getting a look at different lineup combinations, which flows from giving bench players more minutes.
Look at the landscape this way: When Vanderbilt plays Florida, it will make sense for Kevin Stallings to use his set rotation and see what his starters can do. Stallings needs to leave this season with a sense of how his starting five measures up – that's part of the purpose of these final few weeks. However, Saturday's contest in Starkville, Miss., will give Stallings a chance to see what his reserves are capable of. If there's ever a time to give more players a chance to showcase their skills in a live-game situation, this is it.
MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Why is this a game in which Stallings can and should tweak his lineup combinations and his distribution of minutes? Mississippi State, a bad team to begin with (an RPI of 233 entering Saturday's contest), is shorthanded as well. Big man Wendell Lewis is still not ready to return from a knee injury he suffered in December. Forward Roquez Johnson has been suspended indefinitely, and he did not play in MSU's loss at Alabama this past Wednesday night. Guard Jalen Steele is playing for the Bulldogs, but he was briefly suspended two weeks earlier.
Kristen Spink of The Reflector, Mississippi State's student newspaper, noted earlier this week that, not including Steele, MSU had just five scholarship players available to play against Alabama. She also pointed out that the seven players left in MSU's (thin) rotation did not average even one point for the Bulldogs in the 2011-2012 season, with two of them – Baxter Price and Tyson Cunningham – not scoring a single point in any game. These deficits in both depth and quality are crashing upon the shoulders of first-year coach Rick Ray, the successor to Rick Stansbury in Starkville. It's going to take some time for Mississippi State to regain a place in the upper tier of this conference. If the Bulldogs are able to compete for any sort of postseason bid in the 2014-2015 season, Ray will be able to say that he has the program on the right track.
MISSISSIPPI STATE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Field goal shooting percentage: 40.6. National rank: 297 (out of 345).
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 27.9. National rank: 337.
Free throw shooting percentage: 65.4. National rank: 284.
Turnovers per game: 16.8. National rank: 338.
Assists per game: 9.7. National rank: 334.
Rebounding percentage: 47.5. National rank: 300.
Points per possession: 0.868. National rank: 326.
Forward – Colin Borchert – Junior, 6-8, 231 2012-13: 8.1 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game, 1.3 steals per game, 1.4 blocks per game
Borchert makes a strong case for being Mississippi State's best defensive player. As you can see in the "stat pack" section of this scouting report, Mississippi State's offense is atrocious. Its defense is not great, but it does take the ball away, forcing 15.2 turnovers per game, placing the Bulldogs in the top 45 in the country (44th, to be precise). Stealing the ball is the one thing MSU does well; four players (all of them active, by the way; not the suspended or injured players on this team…) average at least 1.3 steals per contest. If there's one thing Vanderbilt must pay attention to on Saturday, it's ball security… much like football, right?
Forward – Gavin Ware – Freshman, 6-9, 280; 2012-13: 8.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg
Before his injury, Wendell Lewis – this team's starting big man at the beginning of the season – hit 56.8 percent of his field goal attempts. Ware, Lewis's replacement, hits 56.2 percent of his attempts. Johnson – who is suspended, remember – hits 42.8 percent of his shots. If you exclude Johnson and Lewis from an evaluation of MSU's roster, Ware becomes the only player who hits more than 40 percent of his shots. That's not a misprint. It will obviously be important, then, for Vanderbilt to keep Ware off the offensive glass.
Guard – Trivante Bloodman – Sophomore, 6-0, 178; 2012-13: 6.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.3 steals per game
Bloodman is in the starting five because Steele – though receiving starter-level minutes against Alabama (27) – was kept on the pine at tip-off time, a continuing punishment for violating team rules a few weeks ago. Bloodman is an active defender, but he hits only 25.8 percent of his threes. As long as Steele – a 35-percent three-point shooter – remains on the bench, there isn't one MSU guard whose shooting will cause headaches for the opposition. VU should concede the jump shot and focus on taking away dribble penetration against the Bulldogs' starting backcourt. When Steele comes in to replace Bloodman, VU might have to worry about taking away Steele's shooting hand. That's the only player who might hurt the Dores from long distance. Bloodman and his other teammates won't.
Guard – Fred Thomas – Freshman, 6-5, 180; 2012-13: 9.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.6 steals per game
The one encouraging thing about the composition of Mississippi State's lineup is that it is very young. Thomas is one of three freshmen in the current starting five. He brings fresh legs and great energy to the Bulldogs. He attacks the glass and hounds perimeter shooters with his long, lanky frame. Vanderbilt will want to use a weave at times or consider other strategies that will enable the Commodores to move the ball smoothly on the perimeter against Thomas's defensive pressure.
Guard – Craig Sword – Freshman, 6-3, 189; 2012-13: 10 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.6 steals per game
This is Mississippi State's only double-figure scorer… and he averages exactly 10 points a game, not one tenth of a point more. (Steele, as a point of comparison, averages 9.7 points per game as a junior.) This is not a negative commentary on Sword, a freshman who is performing well in his introduction to the college game; it's a reflection of how thin Mississippi State has become. Sword's primacy as a scoring threat also underscores the extent to which this team's upperclassmen have not been able to produce. The underclassmen carry the load on this team, which provides a measure of encouragement for 2015 but offers little comfort in the present moment and, in all likelihood, for the 2013-2014 season as well.
:Until he's released from Ray's (Bull)doghouse, Jalen Steele, who has already been mentioned a lot in this space, will continue to come off the bench as Bloodman's replacement. Tyson Cunningham and Baxter Price offer no substantial presence for MSU at either end of the floor.
Keys to the Game
1) Don't feed fast-break points to Mississippi State. Vanderbilt might commit some turnovers in this game, but as long as those turnovers do not lead to run-outs and cheap transition baskets for MSU, the Bulldogs will find it very hard to outscore VU. Smart, safe passing on the perimeter – predicated on a recognition of the need to make simple plays – will be the Commodores' best friend in this game. Keeping things uncomplicated should be a primary pregame priority for Stallings and the rest of the coaching staff.
2) Counter Ware on the glass. Minimizing MSU's fast-break points is one way of limiting the cheap points the Bulldogs can attain. Locking down on the boards is the other. As long as Vanderbilt hits the defensive boards and does not give MSU many second-chance points, the Bulldogs will have nowhere to turn to on offense.
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