The Mississippi State Bulldogs come into the Vanderbilt game with an overall record of 17-6, and 5-4 in conference play. They had this past Wednesday off, so their most recent game was a shocking 90-76 loss to a weak Auburn team on the road. On January 18 they suffered a humiliating 98-49 defeat at the hands of Alabama, and also lost on the road to Tennessee 64-63 and LSU 69-62. Four of their conference victories have been at home, over Auburn 90-53, Arkansas 80-55, South Carolina 73-65, and Florida 71-57, and the other was at Mississippi 87-76. In non conference play they lost on neutral courts to Syracuse 71-58 and Arizona 68-64, and their best victories were at home over Virginia Tech 81-65, at Xavier 80-74, and on a neutral court over St. Mary's 67-54.
Mississippi State is coached by 45-year old Rick Stansbury (right), who is in his seventh year of leading the Bulldogs. His overall record is 142-68, one of the best among SEC coaches. His teams have won one SEC title (2003-04), made three appearances in the NCAA tournament, and taken two trips to the NIT. Before becoming head coach Stansbury was assistant to his predecessor, Richard Williams, for eight years. Earlier, he was an assistant coach for six years at Austin Peay. In his student days, the Louisville, Ky. native was a four-year starter at Campbellsville College.
The leading player for Mississippi State, and the reigning Player of the Year in the SEC, is 6-9 senior Lawrence Roberts (left). He spent his first two years of eligibility at Baylor, and was allowed to transfer after the scandal broke there, and play at State without sitting out a year. He had a difficult start to this season by suffering a broken nose in the pre-season, which made it necessary for him to wear a plastic protective mask in his first several games. However, he has actually improved on his statistics of last season, and is averaging 18.2 ppg and 11.1 rebounds. Playing an average of 32 minutes per game, he hits 47.7% of his shots from the field and gets to the free throw line very often, making 66.7% of his attempts there. He is very active and aggressive, and is a strong candidate for All-American honors.
The Bulldogs suffered a severe blow when 6-4 senior Winsome Frazier went down for the season with an injury. This happened in the second conference game and deprived the team of its second leading scorer (13.2 ppg), top defensive player, and an outside scoring threat. His logical replacement has been 6-5 senior Ontario Harper (7.6 ppg, 5.1 rebounds), a good player who had been the team's sixth man. He started as a junior and led the team in rebounds, but has been somewhat slow to regain full form after having to sit out last season with a torn ACL.
Mississippi State's biggest loss from their 26-4 team of last season was 6-2 Timmy Bowers, who ran the team with great intelligence. 5-11 sophomore Gary Ervin has taken his place and is undoubtedly talented, but has not yet developed the maturity and steadiness of Bowers. He averages 8.3 ppg and 5.2 assists, with an assist/turnover ratio of about 1.5/1.0. Ervin is not an outside threat and gets most of his points on drives to the basket. He is very quick and figures to give Vanderbilt's point guards (who have had problems with similar players) a lot of trouble.
6-5 senior Shane Power, who played his first two seasons at Iowa State, is a mature and steadying influence and the team's main outside scoring threat (37.9% on threes). He also grabs about four rebounds per game, and is a capable defender. Power plays best at the off-guard, but frequently has to take over at a forward.
At low post, Mississippi State starts 7-0 senior Marcus Campbell, who is not blessed with great talent but packs 270 pounds and provides a second intimidating inside presence. He scores 7.1 ppg and snares an average of 5.7 rebounds, although usually playing less than 20 minutes per game.
State can call upon several useful reserves. 5-9 transfer junior Jamell Edmondson (4.8 ppg) is a good outside shooter (39.0%). 6-3 sophomore Dietric Slater (3.6 ppg) is a good defender. 6-9 freshman Walter Sharpe (2.7 ppg) should develop into a starter next year. 6-9 sophomore Piotr Stelmach (2.4 ppg) actually saw more action last year than this. 7-2 redshirt junior Wesley Morgan (1.8 ppg) is a helpful substitute for Campbell. 6-8 freshman Charles Rhodes (2.3 ppg) has seen limited action.
The blowout loss of State to Alabama seemed like an anomaly; a night when nothing (including rebounding) went right. And rebounding has been State's strength. But then along came the Auburn loss and it begins to look as though the Bulldogs are doomed to a disappointing season, although they may still make it to the NCAA.
To date, State has been invulnerable at home and it will take a big outside-shooting performance for Vanderbilt to break that pattern, because the Commodores will find it hard to get anything inside. Mississippi State is picked here to win this game by six to twelve points. Still, when two erratic teams meet, and Vanderbilt and the Bulldogs both qualify for that description, anything can happen.