Vanderbilt completed a very successful two-game homestand on Saturday with a 76-68 victory over Mississippi. It was the first win for Coach Kevin Stallings over the Rebels and the Commodores were led in scoring by Matt Freije (20 points), Scott Hundley (18 points), and Brian Thornton (16 points). Hundley's performance, which also included a team-leading seven rebounds, was made even more remarkable by the fact that he was not feeling well and required an IV afterwards. At this writing, Freije is expected to be named SEC Player of the Week after scoring 51 points in last week's two games.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs now have a conference record of 3-4 after losing Saturday on the road to Georgia 67-63. They have won from South Carolina 64-48 and L.S.U. 67-64, both at home, and at Mississippi 58-57. Their other losses have been at home to Florida 74-66 and away from home to L.S.U. 85-72 and Alabama 68-62. Overall, State has a record of 13-5, including non-conference victories over two ranked teams, Xavier and Oklahoma.
The star of the Mississippi State team is 6-9 junior Mario Austin, who leads in scoring (16.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.1 per game). He makes 58.7% of his shots from the field, almost all of them from close range, and 71.9% of his free throws. Despite missing the first six games of the year because of an eligibility question, he is expected to be named to the all-conference first team at the end of the year.
State features a pair of highly efficient, athletic, tough-defending starting guards in 6-2 junior Timmy Bowers and 6-3 senior Derrick Zimmerman. Bowers is the main three-point scoring threat, having made 40.9% of his attempts (38 of 93), and is the number two scorer (14.8 ppg). He is second in assists and, like Zimmerman, has 34 steals. Zimmerman isn't much of a three-point threat (27-6, 22%), but he leads the teams in assists (4.7 per game) and averages 9.3 ppg. It was Zimmerman who scored a last-second field goal to win the Mississippi game.
The other two starters are 6-9 senior Michal Ignerski and 6-5 sophomore Ontario Harper, both of whom have started every game. Ignerski, who is from Lublin, Poland, is averaging 10.2 ppg and 5.6 rebounds. Harper is scoring 7.1 ppg and grabs 5.8 rebounds per game. Neither has been consistent from beyond the three-point line (Ignerski 28% and Harper 24%), but both are good free throw shooters.
Four players come off the bench in every game, and give the Bulldogs excellent depth. They are 6-4 sophomore Winsome Frazier, 6-8 transfer junior Brandon Vincent, 7-0 sophomore Marcus Campbell, and 6-2 freshman Stephen Cowherd. Frazier (7.4 ppg) is a good outside shooter (53-20, 37.7%). Vincent is an effective rebounder (4.3 per game) and scores 4.9 ppg. Campbell averages about ten minutes and scores 4.6 ppg. Cowherd is the backup point guard, averaging 7.4 minutes and 1.2 ppg. Also likely to see action is 6-9 junior Lincoln Smith (2.5 ppg).
State is the tallest team in the league and leads in rebounding margin. Defensively, they are second best, allowing only 61.4 ppg, while scoring 73.6. The Bulldogs are first in steals, seventh in free throw percentage, and fourth in overall field goal shooting. They are only ninth in three categories: three point shooting percentage; blocked shots; and assist/turnover ratio.
The Bulldogs have been ranked in the top 25 most of the season. Despite a slow start in conference play, they are still likely to make the NCAA tournament.
This will probably be a close game, but Mississippi State has to be favored simply because they will be on their home court and Vanderbilt has yet to win on the road this season. Also, the Commodores lost to them badly last year in Nashville. The prediction is for the Bulldogs to win by about five points, but if the Vanderbilt players are able to carry their newfound toughness to the road, and shoot well, they have a good chance to produce a victory.