Vanderbilt hosts Mississippi State
Everyone knew the backdrop to this past Saturday’s game against Alabama: Vanderbilt had to confront the Kevin Stallings distraction and the attendant possibility that the locker room might have become fractured. Kevin Stallings might have lost his players, especially Wade Baldwin – at the very least, no one really knew what the temperature would be inside the VU inner circle. Yet, the fact that Vanderbilt not only beat Alabama, but did so after a terrible start, offers fairly convincing proof that this team is just as united as it was during the win over Tennessee… if not more so. The attitude of a winning team is being forged here. With so much added experience next season, it is hard to imagine the Dores NOT competing for an NCAA berth in March of 2016.
First things first, though: Vanderbilt must finish the season in front of its nose. The Commodores are building a winning identity. There’s no need to deviate from the plan as Mississippi State comes to Memorial Gym for Senior Night.
MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE
The Bulldogs played Kentucky competitively for nearly 30 minutes before losing the plot as the second half wore on. They very nearly beat Arkansas but fell short by four points. This team is more competitive than it was last season… but it still resides in the bottom tier of the SEC and will almost surely have to play on the first day of the tournament, the day when no team in the league wants to play a game.
The specific and bitter reality MSU must face heading into the SEC tournament and the offseason which will follow: The Bulldogs have lost six SEC games by six points or fewer. This same reality, though, shows why Vanderbilt can’t take victory for granted. The Commodores’ recent surge has been built on the strength of tunnel-vision focus and a very high level of energy, spiced with a large amount of resilience. The last thing VU should be on Wednesday night is overconfident. Hard work has put the Dores in position to possibly forge a .500 conference record if they can win their next two games. Very few people would have given Vanderbilt a chance to pull that off a few weeks ago (or even one week ago).
Forward – Roquez Johnson – Senior, 6-7, 210; 2014-15: 9.7 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game
What’s a good snapshot of how a team loses to lowly South Carolina by 13 points, as Mississippi State did this past weekend in Columbia? Try a starting 6-7 forward getting just two shot attempts in 32 minutes. MSU’s guards took 33 field goal attempts against South Carolina. MSU’s forwards? Only 13 – and that’s five forwards sharing those 13 shots, three of them being reserves. Without an appreciable degree of both balance and assertiveness from its frontcourt, Mississippi State can’t expect to contend for greater college basketball riches in the future.
Forward – Gavin Ware – Junior, 6-9, 260; 2014-15: 10.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg
Ware is the best rebounder on the team by nearly two full rebounds per game (the second-best rebounder being Johnson, at 5.4 per game). Ware, for a muscular and powerful post player, is a pleasantly surprising 75-percent free-throw shooter. That’s the good news for Mississippi State. The bad news? He generally earns only four foul shots per game. If he ever could get 10 free throws a game, he’d be a far more impactful post player.
Guard – Craig Sword – Junior, 6-3, 194; 2014-15: 10.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.6 assists per game
Sword is Mississippi State’s leading scorer, but the fact that he’s the leading scorer with a modest average of under 11 points per game says a lot about the Bulldogs’ continued struggles – not just within the context of this season, but as a program on a larger level. With that having been said, Sword hit 10 of 14 field goals this past Saturday against South Carolina. Vanderbilt cannot let him get that comfortable in this contest. Sword also grabbed eight rebounds against the Gamecocks, so he outperformed his season-long averages by a considerable margin on multiple fronts. That’s an eye-opener for VU against the Bulldogs.
Guard – I.J. Ready – Sophomore, 5-11, 170; 2014-15: 8 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.3 apg
Ready handed out seven assists against South Carolina, so while he’s not imposing by any stretch as a scorer, he has shown an ability to facilitate MSU’s halfcourt offense in other ways. His ability to see the floor is something Vanderbilt will need to pay attention to in this game.
Guard – Fred Thomas – Junior, 6-5, 206; 2014-15: 9.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg
Thomas played only 19 minutes against South Carolina this past Saturday, so his level of centrality in this game is uncertain. One thing that’s clear about Thomas: He doesn’t concern himself much with passing the ball, at least not to set up baskets. He averages under one assist per game. He limits Mississippi State’s offense that way.
Ray turns to forwards Oliver Black, Demetrius Houston, and Fallou Ndoye, plus guards Trivante Bloodman and Travis Daniels. Black averages 2.5 rebounds per game. Houston, who scored 9 points against South Carolina, averages 2.9 points per game. Ndoye averages 2.2 points per game. In the backcourt, Bloodman averages 3.9 points per game, Daniels 6.2 to go along with 4 rebounds per contest.
Keys to the Game
1) Keep it simple. Vanderbilt has dealt with a big off-court distraction. The Commodores also won off a short (Thursday-to-Saturday) turnaround. They have been able to win on the road as well as at home. Everything they’re doing right now is working. The same focus and the same preparation should be sufficient for this game – don’t try to reinvent the wheel or, on the other side of the divide, slide into an easy overconfidence.
2) Continue to close down on shooting hands. Vanderbilt isn’t giving up very many easy baskets of late. The team’s defensive energy and attention to detail have noticeably improved. Remaining locked in at the defensive end is the surest way to keep this feel-good stretch rolling along.