With the win, Vanderbilt (18-8, 8-4 SEC) took over sole possession of second place in the SEC East. The Commodores also re-entered the AP Top 25, jumping all the way to #17. The ranking is the highest for a Vanderbilt team since the final poll of the 1992-1993 season. On Wednesday, the ‘Dores try to defend their ranking in Starkville against Mississippi State.
Coach Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs (15-10, 6-6) limped to a 2-5 record in the first month of SEC play, even losing to South Carolina in the Gamecocks' only conference road win. In February, though, Mississippi State has won four out of five games. The Bulldogs won at Auburn and LSU, and their lone loss of the month came in Tuscaloosa by a single point. The recent solid play has propelled the team to the top of the SEC West, where they share the division lead with Ole Miss and Alabama.
Sophomore Jamont Gordon leads the Bulldogs in four major statistical categories: points (16.1 per game), assists (4.6), rebounds (7.2), and steals (1.2). His point, assist, and rebound totals put him in the top ten in the SEC in each category. At 6-4 and 225 pounds, Gordon has the size to play in the post and the ball skills to play on the perimeter. Last season, Stansbury used his star player at the point often, but excessive turnovers limited his effectiveness there. In a blowout loss at Memorial last year, Gordon committed nine turnovers to go along with just five points and four assists. This year, though, the Bulldogs have more ballhandlers, allowing the sophomore to play off the ball more. His assist-to-turnover ratio still isn't great (1.3-to-1), but it has improved since last season. Though Gordon struggled against Vanderbilt last season, his numbers have improved across the board this year, and his combination of size and skill with the ball could create a match-up nightmare for the Commodores.
The lone inside threat for the Bulldogs is 6-8 junior Charles Rhodes. Second on the team in scoring (12.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.0 rpg), Rhodes has carried Mississippi State lately. He's led the Bulldogs in scoring in each of their last three games – all wins – including a 25-point performance at Auburn. His 56 percent from the field leads all State regulars and is good for seventh in the conference. Rhodes weighs in at 240 pounds and possesses a nice set of post moves, making him a consistent scoring threat in the paint. Last season, the junior big man was the only Bulldog to play well against Vanderbilt, scoring 19 points in the loss. This year, though, the Commodores have done a good job doubling down in the post and making things difficult for strong post players like Rhodes. On Saturday, Ross Neltner and the rest of the Vandy front line never allowed Al Horford an easy look at the basket, opting to make him earn his points at the free throw line instead. They'll need to take the same physical approach against Rhodes to make sure he doesn't repeat his success from last season.
Swingman Dietric Slater is one of two seniors on the team and the Bulldogs' fourth-leading scorer. His 9.5 points per game are complemented by 5.5 rebounds per game, a testament to Slater's athleticism and ability to play around the rim. Suspended for the first 12 games of the season, the senior has regained form at a crucial time for Mississippi State. He's scored in double figures in five out of the last six games. One area in which Slater has really struggled is his assist-to-turnover ratio. Averaging a mere 1.2 helpers per game, he commits close to three turnovers per contest. Along with the turnovers, Slater has a tendency to force up ill-advised shots. If the Commodores can pressure him into making mistakes on the offensive end, they can neutralize a potent scoring threat and create extra possessions for themselves.
Rounding out the Mississippi State starting lineup is a pair of twins, 6-4 sophomores Reginald and Richard Delk. After a solid freshman campaign, Reginald's numbers have been disappointing this season. His scoring average has increased slightly (8.9 to 9.3 ppg), but his defensive numbers and shooting percentages have all declined. Reginald led the Bulldogs in three-point percentage last season, shooting 41 percent, but he's shot just 35 percent from beyond the arc this year. As he showed in a win over LSU, though, he can do some damage from distance. Reginald converted five of six attempts from three-point land in the seven-point win over the Tigers. Reginald's brother Richard has seen his numbers increase from his injury-plagued freshman season. While he's not a primary offensive option (6.0 ppg), he provides Mississippi State with an accurate outside shooter and competent defender.
Three freshmen have brought some much-needed depth to Stansbury's rotation. Tennessee native Barry Stewart is the Bulldogs' third-leading scorer, chipping in nearly 11 points per game. A 6-2 gunner, Stewart leads the team in three-pointers while shooting them at a 40 percent clip. His 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is a team best, as well. With Stewart on the floor, the Bulldogs can play Gordon off the ball and still run it through a scoring point man.
Freshman guard Ben Hansbrough is perhaps the Bulldogs' best pure shooter. The younger brother of North Carolina standout Tyler, Hansbrough leads the team in three-point shooting at a blistering 47 percent, and he hits free throws at an 81 percent rate. As indicated by his 3.4 assists per game, the 6-3 freshman is a competent ballhandler, giving the Bulldogs yet another option at the point guard spot. When Hansbrough is on the floor, expect Gordon to try for more looks around the basket rather than out on the perimeter.
Finally, 6-9 forward Jarvis Varnado gives the Bulldogs a strong defensive presence in the post. Though he hasn't scored more than four points in an SEC game, Varnado leads the team in blocks with 2.2 per game, and he's compiled decent numbers on the glass (4.4 rpg). Look for the freshman forward's minutes to increase if the Commodores get easy lay-ups out of offensive sets early on.
In SEC games, the Bulldogs have thrived defensively, holding conference opponents to just 42 percent shooting from the field. They've been able to keep games close against superior competition by clamping down on the defensive end and slowing the tempo to a crawl, as shown in a 64-60 loss at Rupp Arena and a 70-67 setback against Florida. More recently, the 56-50 win at LSU built State's confidence, as they finally were able to finish off a close contest.
Offensively, the Bulldogs need Jamont Gordon to shoulder a significant portion of the scoring load. However, when the team has depended on their star too much, Gordon hasn't always been able to push State to victory. For instance, he went a meager five of 17 from the floor to score 17 points against Florida, while his All-SEC teammate, Charles Rhodes, managed just nine points. The Bulldogs shot just over 36 percent in that game and lost to the Gators by three points.
When the Mississippi State scoring is evenly balanced, as it has been over the team's last five games, the Bulldogs are able to stretch the defense and open the floor for Rhodes and Gordon. In State's four February wins, Gordon has been the leading scorer just once, tying Rhodes for the point lead in the win over LSU. In contrast, five Bulldogs scored in double figures in the win at Auburn and in the home rout of Arkansas.
The win over Florida all but punched Vanderbilt's ticket to the Big Dance. These last four games give the ‘Dores an opportunity to secure a first round bye in the SEC tournament and a high seed in the NCAAs. Of the four, a victory in Starkville, where Vandy hasn't won since 1993, could be the toughest to attain. To secure that elusive win at Humphrey Coliseum and their first winning conference record under Kevin Stallings, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
- Second fiddles?: While Jamont Gordon and Derrick Byars have been the stars of their respective teams, Charles Rhodes and Shan Foster have proven to be just as integral to their squad's success. Foster demonstrated his importance by tossing in 24 points, including a team-high 13 in the first half to lead the charge against Florida, while Rhodes has dominated in State's past three games. The big man has averaged just fewer than 20 points per game during the Bulldogs' current three-game winning streak. Expect Byars and Gordon, two candidates for the All-SEC first team, to get their points. Whichever team can contain the other's "Option 1-B" will have the edge in this one.
- Live by the three…: Vandy converted 10 of 21 three-point attempts against the Gators, but they did an even better job of getting open looks around the basket, hitting 63 percent of shot attempts inside the arc. The Bulldogs hold SEC opponents to just 34.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc, as they have active perimeter defenders with decent height. The ‘Dores probably won't beat State from three-point distance, but they should be able to get just as many good shots from inside the arc as they did against the Gators. If Foster and Byars continue to aggressively attack the paint, the Commodores will have success. If the Vandy guards are too complacent in their shot selection, though, look for the Bulldogs to win with their defense.
- Gut check: Kevin Stallings will undoubtedly remind his players about the dangers of a letdown in Starkville, but the message bears repeating. After a hard-fought, emotional home win over Georgia, the Commodores came out flat against Tennessee and got run off the floor. Now, after their biggest win of the year, the ‘Dores must refocus and show up in Starkville with just as much energy to escape Humphrey Coliseum with their ninth SEC win. Anything less and a letdown is likely.
Prediction: The debacle in Knoxville aside, this Vanderbilt team has demonstrated its mental toughness time and time again. Knowing many people expect them to show up flat in Starkville after Saturday's emotional high, look for the ‘Dores to play with vigor in a push to lock up a conference record and secure a higher seed in the Big Dance. Gordon and Rhodes have been match-up problems for almost every opponent, though, so expect this one to stay close throughout. Final score: Vanderbilt 73, Mississippi State 69.