Mississippi State – Vanderbilt Preview

As a new week begins, it would be very easy for fans of the Black and Gold to look back to last week and wonder: What might have been?

Two wins over top 15 teams on the road.

All alone in first place in the SEC East, with Kentucky and Tennessee still to visit Memorial Gym.

National recognition and possibly a top 15 ranking.

While it is easy for Vanderbilt fans to be frustrated that these realities did not emerge, and maybe even a little upset with South Carolina for knocking off the Wildcats just before Vandy rolled into Lexington, do keep in mind it is only the first week of February, and that this season – which was falling below expectations in non-conference play – is now meeting the standards established at the beginning of this basketball journey.

Ten regular season games remain, including the above-mentioned visits by the Cats and Vols. It is not unrealistic for the Commodores to have 24 wins going into SEC Tournament play. Win a couple in the conference tournament and a nice NCAA seed (perhaps as high as a 4) should be coming Vanderbilt's way.

But for that to happen, Bulldog Week – this week's slate of games at Mississippi State and Georgia – is extremely important. The Dores must rebound from the Kentucky loss and protect their home court. Then they travel to what has become the upset center of college basketball this year, Athens, Ga.

Vanderbilt can only take on one set of Bulldogs at a time, and this Wednesday it is the pack from Starkville.

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE

Coach Rick Stansbury's club comes into Nashville 16-5 overall, 4-2 in the SEC, but is only 3-3 on the road this year. The Bulldogs have also struggled as of late. Before a 16-point win over LSU this past Saturday, MSU had a two-game losing streak, at Alabama and at Arkansas.

Those are not the games you want to lose if you're sitting on the proverbial NCAA bubble. Especially when your schedule's only wins over the RPI top 50 are Old Dominion and Ole Miss, neither of which is RPI top-25 material.

The season to date is not what was expected in Starkville following last year's run to the SEC Tournament championship and a six-game winning streak that ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Washington.

In its last seven games, Mississippi State is a mediocre 4-3, with one of the losses being a 55-52 decision at Western Kentucky (a loss that is applicable to this examination, since Vanderbilt also lost to WKU, 76-69, in the Sun Belt Classic back on December 11).

The most intriguing aspect to the Bulldogs this year is actually the off-court saga of prized recruit Renardo Sidney. The 6'10" center has been in limbo all season while the university and NCAA have been investigating his amateur status. So far he has not been cleared, and despite some rumblings a week ago that the decision was close at hand, it does not look promising for Sidney to take the court in the foreseeable future. It is highly probable Sidney will never see game action as a Bulldog and enter himself in the NBA Draft this off-season.

Wednesday night's game figures to be another contrast in styles, one the Commodores should be used to after consecutive games with Tennessee and Kentucky. The Bulldogs love to push the tempo. While VU coach Kevin Stallings is not averse to playing at a faster pace, it will be interesting to see if he chooses to run with the Bulldogs, or make Mississippi St. play a slower pace.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Jarvis Varnado – Senior, 6'9", 230; 2009-10: 13.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg,

Varnado is without question the Bulldogs' leader. He enters the Vanderbilt game with 500 career blocked shots. If that sounds like a bunch, it is. Varnado is only 35 blocks short of the NCAA career record. Varnado, who is averaging a double-double, has had 11 of them this year. Want to guess who will be guarding A.J. Ogilvy Wednesday? Ogilvy struggled with the DeMarcus Cousins on Saturday. Cousins, however, doesn't have the veteran savvy that Varnado will bring into Memorial Gym. Stansbury likes to play an up and down style. If Varnado is blocking shots (he averages five per game) and getting rebounds, MSU will have fast-break scoring opportunities all night. Should he get into foul trouble however, Ogilvy and the rest of Vandy's post players will get plenty of good looks at the basket.

Forward – Kodi Augustus – Junior 6'8", 220; 2009-10: 8.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg

Augustus might be best known throughout SEC country for the critical comments he made about Stansbury following Mississippi State's season-opening upset loss to Rider. His comments earned him a two-game suspension. He has not remained in Stansbury's doghouse, though, and has been playing some of his best basketball as of late. The lanky junior mostly gets his points in transition and he can stretch a defense, shooting 38.5 % from three. Augustus is also known for forcing shots when they aren't coming to him naturally, as attested to in his 2 for 13 performance in a five-point loss at Arkansas.

Guard – Dee Bost – Sophomore, 6'2", 170; 2009-10: 11.4 ppg, 5.4 apg 4.7 rpg

Only a sophomore this season, Bost started all 36 games at point guard for the Bulldogs last year. How did he perform as a freshman? Quite well at just under 11 points per game and 4.3 assists per game. Bost is usually a good indicator of how the Bulldogs are playing. In MSU's five losses this year, Boss' best shooting night in those games was a 28 % performance at Western Kentucky. He has especially struggled as of late, going 6 for 27 in his last three games, games in which Mississippi St. is 1-2, the win being over last-place LSU. The matchup between Bost and Jermaine Beal will be one of the more interesting matchups Wednesday night. While Beal has had a hot hand lately, Bost is a good rebounder for being only 6'2." Beal is going to have to make sure to keep Bost off the boards before concerning himself with Vandy's offensive possessions.

Guard – Barry StewartSenior, 6'3", 170; 2009-10:  11.2 ppg, 2.2 apg 36 % 3pt.

Do not be deceived that MSU cannot score just because its leading scorer is averaging only 14 a game. The Bulldogs are as balanced as they come and while Varnado, Bost and leading scorer Ravern Johnson command most of the attention, Vanderbilt would do well to keep its eyes on this sharpshooter named Stewart. The court inside the three-point arc might as well be hot lava; nearly all of Stewart's shots happen from three. Whether it be in transition or on kick-outs from Varnado, if Stewart is left open he will fire away. At 36 %, he deserves the attention, but Stallings should also keep in mind that if you take Stewart's 1-7 night at Bama out of the equation, he is shooting 46 % in SEC play.

Guard – Ravern Johnson – Junior 6'7", 175; 2009-10:  14.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 43.4 % 3pt

Johnson, the Bulldogs'  leading scorer, has really started to flourish as a junior. While the highlight of the year for Johnson was a 29-point explosion against UCLA in the Wooden Classic, he has been consistent throughout the year for Miss. St. Johnson is deadly in the Bulldog's transition attack, as evidenced in his 50.5 % field goal percentage. Johnson is a slasher but he also possesses a 43 % shot from beyond the arc. Johnson has gone cold lately from downtown however; going 3 for 22 from that distance in the last four games. The key to defending Johnson is getting back in defensive transition. Make him score his points in the halfcourt game.

Bench

Though Stansbury's club is constantly looking to push the basketball up the court, it really rotates only eight players. Phil Turner (6'3" junior guard) continues the MSU theme of the long and athletic wing player, contributing six points and five rebounds, while playing 20 minutes a game. Romero Osby provides the frontcourt depth at 6'8" and 230 pounds, and he scores just under five points a game. It would have been interesting to see how the Bulldogs would look with Sidney in the rotation, as a starter no doubt, but I'm sure Stallings and crew won't complain.

  Keys to the Game

  1. Bring Vanardo out from the basket – Vanardo clearly owns the paint near the hoop he is defending. You don't get within striking distance of the NCAA career record for blocks without owning the key. When MSU is in a man defense, it will be important for whomever Vanardo is guarding to be the person setting the high back screens and ball screens seen regularly in the Commodore offense. This effectively means Vanardo is not guarding the block. The problem, then, is being aware of his presence coming from the weak side. When the Bulldogs go zone, it is imperative Vanderbilt get the ball to the high middle of the zone to bring Vanardo up toward the foul line and then open up the baseline to cutters.
  2. Defensive transition - Mississippi State clearly likes to push the basketball and when opponents fail to make getting back a priority, the Bulldogs make them pay with easy transition buckets. Teams with inferior athletes but sound principles, such as Rider and Richmond, have been able to defeat the Bulldogs by making it a goal to get back on defense when they shoot. Vanderbilt is even better than those teams fundamentally, and if the Dores make an effort to do this, they should be favored to handle MSU on Wednesday night in Nashville.

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