Basketball Scouting Report: Mississippi State

Call it "Five and Diner Basketball" or whatever else you want – it's working for Vanderbilt. The Commodores allowed 55 points at Texas A&M and 54 at Georgia. They can continue their winning ways if they remain focused and dedicated at the defensive end of the floor and don't surrender easy baskets to Mississippi State.

It takes a lot of effort and willpower to win power-conference basketball games. Yet, some paths to victory are more nuanced and complicated than others. For Vanderbilt right now, the math is simple: Give up no more than 54 to 57 points, and let the rest take care of itself. The SEC is such a mediocre league that most teams are susceptible to prolonged scoring droughts and generally subpar offensive performances. Vanderbilt is not going to win a shootout with its limited bench; realizing this, the Dores have dedicated themselves to defense and have been able to see how fruitful that approach can be. Cranking out more feel-good songs and classic oldies from the 50s is what this team needs to do if it wants to move up the ladder in the SEC.

Don't look now, but Vanderbilt has a very realistic path to a 10-8 record in the conference. Fans can see this, but VU's players and coaches have to remain locked in at the defensive end of the floor. Staying locked in will enable the Dores to continue to lock down SEC foes… and climb upward in the standings. Let's not complicate matters, shall we?


Mississippi State might be 3-4 and part of the SEC's vast sea of mediocrity in the broad middle section of the 14-team conference, but for the Bulldogs, 3-4 isn't that bad – not when one considers where this program was last season. Mississippi State limped to a 4-14 record in a below-average conference and was the No. 13 seed in the league tournament. A finish anywhere close to the .500 mark would represent a substantial step forward for head coach Rick Ray, who is cultivating more depth in Starkville and might be able to make a charge at the NIT in 2015, followed by a possible run at the NCAAs in 2016 if everything goes according to plan. Mississippi State isn't a good team by any stretch, but it's no longer a pushover, and for now, that has to give the Bulldogs and their fans a measure of real-world hope.

MSU hasn't scored a five-star upset this season, but the Bulldogs did beat Ole Miss at home. That should be more than enough reason for Vanderbilt to cast aside any notions that this game will be a smooth ride to victory lane.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Colin Borchert –
Senior, 6-8, 231; 2013-14: 10.6 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, 1.5 assists per game

Four of the members of Mississippi State's starting five contribute on the glass. Gang rebounding is something this team does fairly well, and while the talent on this team is nothing more than modest, the Bulldogs compete better than other more gifted teams in the country, a testament to Ray's ability to keep MSU motivated. Borchert is in many ways reflective of both the virtues and limitations of this team.

Forward – Gavin Ware – Sophomore, 6-9, 268; 2013-14: 10.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg

Ware basically does what Borchert does, only better. He's the elite rebounder on this team, and his heft in the paint is something that could give Vanderbilt problems. This is not a string bean in the low post. VU has to be ready to absorb the punishment Ware might dish out in the eight feet near the basket.

Guard – Craig Sword – Sophomore, 6-3, 194; 2013-14: 13.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.1 steals per game

When you look at this roster, you'll notice that it's dominated by underclassmen. Sword is the best of the bunch, and what has to make Ray particularly happy as his coach is that Sword doesn't slack off at the defensive end of the floor. He's the team's leading scorer, but he doesn't let that reality get to his head. He keeps his head down and keeps playing, while looking to set up teammates and provide an added presence on the glass.

Guard – Fred Thomas – Sophomore, 6-5, 206; 2013-14: 8 ppg, 3 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.1 steals per game

Sword might be the centerpiece of Mississippi State's future, but Thomas is a second key component. Ray and the rest of the MSU coaching staff will need to get more production from him, since he's not only another sophomore on this roster – someone heavily invested in the next two years of the program's existence – but a big guard who, in time, should be able to polish his jumper and shoot over smaller defenders. Thomas isn't a finished product now, but he'll need to become one over the course of the next two seasons if this program is to continue to improve.

Guard – I.J. Ready – Freshman, 5-11, 170; 2013-14: 6.6 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.1 steals per game

Ready suffered a concussion on Jan. 15 in a game against Alabama and did not play for a brief period of time. He's back in the lineup, having replaced temporary starter Trivante Bloodman. Thursday's game against Florida marked his first high-workload outing (32 minutes) since his concussion. Vanderbilt should expect him to operate at full strength.


Forward Roquez Johnson joins Bloodman as a part of the Bulldogs' bench. Johnson is the team's best reserve, averaging 9.8 points and 5 rebounds per game. Bloodman averages 5.5 points per game. Guards Tyson Cunningham and Jacoby Davis will pitch in for the Bulldogs off the pine, though neither player has made any appreciable statistical contribution to Mississippi State this season. .

Keys to the Game

1) Just keep playing those 50s hits.
Vanderbilt is encountering one low-scoring team after another. The Commodores just need to keep throwing down double-nickels and trust that they can play offense efficiently enough to get by. It worked in College Station and Athens. This formula can definitely work in Starkville as well.

2) No cheapies. As long as VU doesn't send MSU to the foul line or cough up a lot of transition baskets or putbacks, it will deny the Bulldogs the accumulation of cheap points that could translate into a loss. If Mississippi State has to work hard for every point, Vanderbilt's modus operandi can continue to succeed. It's not easy to execute, but the conceptual simplicity remains obvious… and the best course for the Dores as they move forward. Top Stories