Basketball Scouting Report: Mississippi State

The Vanderbilt men's basketball team has seen Riley LaChance get hot at the right time, especially against Purdue. VU didn't expect to see an opposing player on the Georgia Bulldogs come alive as a shooter, but Kenny Gaines ambushed the Commodores with a 5-of-7 performance from three-point range. Vanderbilt can consider that a lesson as it travels to Starkville to take on Mississippi State.


Georgia didn’t figure to beat Vanderbilt with a three-point-shooting barrage, but that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs entered the game shooting 31.7 percent as a team from long distance, but when they left Nashville, they had boosted that number to 33.6 percent, nearly two whole percentage points. Kenny Gaines shot the cover off the ball and exceeded his season average by five points. Georgia went 10-of-17 from three-point range and used that flurry to build a lead the Commodores could not erase. That was the unexpected part of Wednesday’s game.

What was more disappointing about the contest as far as Vanderbilt was concerned was that the Dores met targets in terms of not turning the ball over too much (only 11 – that’s solid) and rebounding as a team. Vanderbilt did not get whacked on the glass. Georgia rebounded just four of its 23 misses, a little better than 17 percent, while VU rebounded 12 of its 33 misses, or 44 percent. Free throws were not decisive – Georgia outscored Vanderbilt, but by only four points – so given the rebounding numbers and the fact that turnovers were a wash, VU should have been in good shape.

However, this was a night when the Bulldogs got hot and stayed hot from three-point range, finishing the night 49 percent from the field as a whole. The 70-67 loss reminds the Dores that for all a scouting report might point to, one individual game can always buck the trend. The better teams find ways to survive when trends are bucked in an unfavorable direction. Vanderbilt has a very young team, as you know. Only one of the team’s three seniors, forward James Siakam, gets extended minutes in coach Kevin Stallings’ rotation. The remainder of the season will unearth many truths and lessons for this team. Georgia taught one very important lesson to the Dores on Wednesday. This team might not always be able to apply those lessons in the next two months, but if it can truly learn what needs to be learned, the table could be set for a special 2015-2016 campaign.

On the heels of that loss to Georgia, Vanderbilt now takes its Bulldog Tour to Mississippi State. Let’s see what these canines are up to.

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE

These Bulldogs aren’t as bad as they used to be. Coach Rick Ray has piloted Mississippi State to a win over Utah State, a blowout of Saint Louis (a team Vanderbilt also handled this season), and a defense-dominated victory over Florida State. Previous MSU teams probably wouldn’t have been able to win two of those games, let alone all three.

However, for all the forward strides this team has made, it’s still in the basement of the SEC, sitting at 0-3 through one and a half weeks of league play. One startling statistic is that Mississippi State, in three of its last four losses, has scored 47 points. This is a team that struggles to score. However, a Georgia-like explosion – statistically aberrational and situationally surprising – could always emerge. Vanderbilt truly needs to be “on guard” at the defensive end of the floor.

Here’s a quick statistical profile of Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are 10th or worse in the SEC in the main shooting categories other than free throw percentage: In overall shooting percentage, the team’s two-point rate, three-point rate, and effective field goal percentage, MSU suffers. Points per possession? MSU is last in the SEC at 0.939 points per trip. Turnovers per game? 13th in the SEC. Assists per game? Last in the SEC, at only 8.1 per game. Remember: This is a team which is better than it was in previous seasons.

That’s the state of Mississippi State men’s basketball right now.

The one thing this team does really, really well: It rebounds. Mississippi State is third in the SEC and in the top 65 of the nation (351 teams) in rebounding percentage, at 55.2. MSU is decent in terms of not fouling (fifth in the SEC, in the middle of the pack on a national level), committing under 19 fouls per game. For the most part, though, shooting and ballhandling are profound and consistent problems for this group.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Roquez Johnson –
Senior, 6-7, 210; 2014-15: 10.4 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game

Johnson joins teammate Fred Thomas as one of only two MSU players to average at least 10 points per game. Johnson holds things down in the frontcourt, while Thomas takes care of the backcourt. What you see on Mississippi State is a portrait of balanced scoring, but that balance exists for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways. The balance flows from no one being able to become a particularly potent or transformational player – either over the course of 40 minutes or in late-game situations.

Forward – Gavin Ware – Junior, 6-9, 260; 2014-15: 9.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg

Ware received only 18 minutes in Mississippi State’s most recent game on Tuesday against Texas A&M. Teammate and fellow forward Oliver Black received 27 minutes. Be warned, then: What you see in MSU’s starting five is not necessarily representative of the distribution of minutes among players. This exists not just in the frontcourt but in the backcourt as well. Having dealt with that issue, it does need to be acknowledged that Ware – for the minutes he plays – is a fairly productive player. When you combine his output with Johnson’s numbers, you have a composite player which averages roughly 20 points and 11 rebounds per game, which is not bad at all.

Guard – Craig Sword – Junior, 6-3, 194; 2014-15: 4.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg

Sword is likely to be a “placeholder starter,” since he played only nine minutes in a starting role against Texas A&M. Guard Fred Thomas, mentioned above, got 29 minutes versu the Aggies and is likely to play longer in this game off the bench. Thomas averages 10.4 points and 4.6 boards for Mississippi State, and will be a player Vandy has to contain on defense.

Guard – I.J. Ready – Sophomore, 5-11, 170; 2014-15: 7.3 ppg, 2.1 assists per game

This is a “Kenny Gaines” candidate on the MSU roster, the kind of player who can emerge from relative obscurity and shoot down the Dores if they’re not attentive enough on defense. Ready hit 6 of 13 shots against A&M and led the Bulldogs with 18 points, keeping them competitive in a game they narrowly lost (74-70) on the road. Ready’s 18-point game lifted his season scoring average to just over seven points, so you know he hadn’t done much prior to Tuesday night in College Station. Could Ready be… well… ready to go off? Vanderbilt needs to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Guard – Travis Daniels – Junior, 6-8, 215; 2014-15: 7.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg

Daniels is officially listed as a guard, but he obviously has the body of a forward. His main value lies in that he’s one of three players on the roster to average at least five boards per contest. He’s also one of four players on MSU to average between 5.8 and 9.6 points per game, magnifying how there’s balance on this team, but not prolific or imposing balance in the manner of a team such as (for instance) Kentucky.

Bench

As mentioned above, starters and bench players do not receive distributions of minutes which reflect their respective statuses. You’ve met Fred Thomas. The aforementioned Oliver Black averages 1.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game at the forward spot. Guard Trivante Bloodman got 15 minutes against A&M. He averages 5.8 points and 2.6 assists per game. He is the leading passer on the Bulldogs’ roster (keeping in mind that this is not a good passing team).

Keys to the Game

1) Don’t allow a hot hand to emerge.
Having just been burned by Kenny Gaines, Vanderbilt needs to be attentive to the possibility that an opposing shooter – even one without great credentials or a gleaming history – can get hot. When someone gets hot, that player has to be closed down. VU didn’t do so against Georgia – it needs to be able to do so if any MSU player starts quickly on Saturday.

2) Trust that consistency will pay off. Vanderbilt’s rebounding and turnover totals against Georgia will be good enough to win most SEC games this season. Trusting that good effort will be rewarded, the Commodores don’t have to seek new solutions beyond locking down hot shooters. Maintaining progress in other statistical categories should work for this team.

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