Vandy's Last Game
Though they scored only 50 points, the Commodores won Wednesday by throttling the Georgia offense. The Bulldogs shot a dismal 33.3 percent from the floor, consistently bothered by Vanderbilt's size at every position. The ‘Dores defended especially well in the paint; forward Trey Thompkins, a touted freshman and the team's leading scorer, made just three of his 15 shot attempts.
A combination of Vanderbilt pressure and poor decision making led to 20 Georgia turnovers, a fatal number in such a slow-paced game, but the Commodores kept the Bulldogs in the game with sub-par shooting. Vanderbilt struggled from the perimeter for the second straight game, converting two of its 16 attempts from beyond the arc. The team will need its shooters back in top form against post stalwart Jarvis Varnado and Mississippi State.
Mississippi State At-A-Glance
The Bulldogs (12-5, 2-0) are one of three SEC teams to win their first two conference games. Despite finishing its non-conference schedule with five losses and no signature wins, Rick Stansbury's squad routed a red-hot Arkansas squad in Fayetteville to kick off the SEC campaign. Anchored by five blocks from Jarvis Varnado, the Bulldogs held the Hogs to 35.9 percent shooting. Most recently, they erased a halftime deficit to knock off Alabama at home.
Mississippi State runs four guards alongside prized center Varnado. With four players averaging double figures in scoring, the Bulldogs' offense is as balanced as any in the SEC. All four starting guards can knock down the three-pointer (38.0 percent as a team); toss in an athletic big man, and you've got a team that likes to get out on the break as often as possible. Turnovers have plagued them at times (15.6 per game), but when they take care of the ball the Bulldogs are tough to guard.
Defensively, the Bulldogs give up a bit of size in the post. With the nation's best shot-blocker roaming the paint, though, they can afford to allow a few extra shot attempts down low. Mississippi State holds opponents to 39.6 percent on two-point attempts, good for second in the SEC.
Jarvis Varnado – Junior, 6-9, 210 lbs. – Varnado is the country's best shot-blocker and perhaps its best interior defender. He has swatted away 90 shots already this season, more than nine of the 12 SEC squads (including Vanderbilt). His presence on defense changes games, allowing the Bulldogs' perimeter defenders to aggressively challenge outside shooters. On the other end of the floor, the lanky junior leads his team with 12.9 points per game. Shooting a team-best 60.9 percent from the floor, he does most of his scoring around the bucket but can step out and hit the 12-15 footer if left alone. Varnado also leads the Bulldogs and ranks second in the SEC in rebounding, averaging 9.8 boards per game. A superior athlete with a huge wingspan, he can be a pest on the offensive glass.
Ravern Johnson – Sophomore, 6-7, 175 lbs. – After playing just six minutes per game as a freshman, Johnson is the Bulldogs' leading minute-getter this season, and he's rewarded his coach with steady production. Averaging 11.8 points per game, the sophomore swingman can score in a variety of ways. He leads the team with 38 three-pointers and a 46.9 percent mark from long range, but he can also score off the dribble or in the post. The versatile Johnson has been vital to the Bulldogs' offensive success; his team is 9-0 when he scores in double figures and 3-5 when he scores fewer than ten points.
Barry Stewart – Junior, 6-3, 170 lbs. – Stewart, a Tennessee native, ranks third on the team with 11,1 points per game. Like Johnson, Stewart gives the Bulldogs a steady perimeter shooter who can keep defenses honest with his ability to penetrate. The junior has knocked down 31 trifectas this season and shoots them at a 38.3 percent clip. Though he can use his dribble to get into the lane and reach the free throw line, Stewart is only a mediocre free throw shooter (67.9 percent). Averaging 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, the junior is a capable defender and rebounder for his size.
Dee Bost – Freshman, 6-2, 170 lbs. – A highly regarded prospect in high school, Bost inherited the Bulldogs' lead guard spot after the departures of Jamont Gordon and Ben Hansbrough. Just 17 games into his freshman season, he's already settled in nicely at the point, boasting a team-best 4.6 assists per game and a tidy 1.6-to-1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. A talented scorer, Bost has just begun to display his offensive talent. He's averaging 14.0 points per game over the past five contests, including a 17-point performance in the Bulldogs' win in Fayetteville. Like the other MSU guards, Bost can shoot the trey, but he's the best of the bunch off the dribble. His quickness has already made him a solid perimeter defender as well.
Phil Turner – Sophomore, 6-3, 170 lbs. – Though Turner doesn't score as much as the other four Mississippi State starters (7.2 ppg), he has demonstrated lately that he can be just as dangerous on any given night. The sophomore is averaging 10.5 points over his last eight games, most recently going 3-for-4 from beyond the arc en route to 17 points against Alabama. The most efficient of the Bulldog guards, Turner is shooting 51.3 percent from the floor. While he can be the forgotten man on offense, the ‘Dores can't afford to sleep on any of the four Bulldog shooters, Turner included.
Sophomore Elgin Bailey and freshman Romero Osby bolster the Mississippi State frontcourt. Both stand 6-8, but while Bailey is a traditional post-up power forward, Osby brings more versatility to the table. A highly ranked recruit, the freshman averages 6.5 points per game; with his inside-outside game, that number should increase as he becomes more comfortable in the SEC.
In the backcourt, 6-4 sophomore Riley Benock and 6-5 freshman Twany Beckham provide quality minutes. Benock gives the Bulldogs yet another dangerous three-point shooter (41.9 percent), while Beckham has emerged as a potential point guard option behind Bost.
Keys to the Game
Paint Wars – The Commodores and Bulldogs rank first and second in the SEC in field-goal percentage defense, and, according to Ken Pomeroy, both teams rank in the top ten nationally in two-point field goal percentage defense. Mississippi State doesn't rely as much as Vanderbilt on inside scoring, so the ‘Dores must find a way to match the points the Bulldogs will score from the outside. While A.J. Ogilvy is a much more polished scorer than Varnado on the inside, Varnado's shot-blocking ability evens the playing field. If the Commodores cannot improve their three-point shooting, they'll need Jermaine Beal and Jeffery Taylor to create opportunities off the dribble for themselves and their teammates. Against a presence like Varnado, interior passing will be crucial.
Perimeter Defense – Mississippi State's four-guard attack leads the SEC in three-pointers and ranks third in shooting percentage from beyond the arc. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, checks in ninth in the conference in three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 33.6 percent from long range. The Commodores have the size advantage on the perimeter without giving up much quickness, so Vanderbilt should in theory be able to keep the Bulldog outside game in check. The key will be the visitors' ability to locate the shooters in transition, a tough task considering Stansbury usually runs four shooters at a time.
Prediction: Clashing styles have yielded similar results for the two teams thus far. Vanderbilt's size all over the court has enabled the ‘Dores to stifle opponents without gambling, while Varnado allows Bulldog defenders to overly pressure the perimeter. Offensively, the Bulldogs rely on perimeter shooting, while the Commodores do most of their scoring with Ogilvy on the inside and using penetration. Against a team that defends nearly as well as the ‘Dores do, Vanderbilt must shoot well from the perimeter to win in Starkville. While the Commodores have the shooters to pull it off, they've shot just 9-for-41 from deep in the last two games. Final Score: Mississippi State 69, Vanderbilt 66.