SCOUTING THE BULLDOGS
Mississippi State is strong across the board, but especially stands out in the backcourt, where senior guard Dee Bost and freshman Rodney Hood are first and third on the team in scoring. Bost (17.0 ppg) leads the team in shot attempts by a wide margin, and makes less than 43% of his attempts overall, but is a scorer that can put the ball in the basket from anywhere. He makes 36.5% from three-point range, and also leads the team in steals with 20. Hood, a talented newcomer, has benefited from the attention paid to Bost while averaging 13 ppg on efficient 55% shooting from the field. He also gets to the boards, averaging 5.4 rpg. Completing the expect trio of starting guards is senior Brian Bryant, who chips in 8.4 ppg. Bryant is not the shooter that either Hood or Bost is, so he might be the player to slough off when defensive help inside is needed.
Off the bench, Jalen Steel provides 18 minutes of support per game, and is doing an excellent job of spelling the starting trio. He adds 6.3 ppg, but is also playing well in a distributor role, dealing out 14 assists, good for third on the team. He, like Bryant, is not an outstanding shooter, however. Freshman guard DeVille Smith also provides quality backup minutes, averaging 6.0 ppg. He's also second on the team in assists with 19.
While the MSU backcourt is clearly loaded, that doesn't mean there's a talent deficit up front. Forward Arnett Moultire, who stands 6-11, pours in 16 ppg and averages 10.8 rpg to complete a season double-double to date. He's also an excellent free throw shooter, hitting nearly 89% of his chances, and will be a big challenge for WVU's defenders. Fellow forward Renardo Sidney, who has had something of a checkered career in Starkville, has finally appeared to settle in. He's averaging 8.2 ppg and 3.6 rpg, and figures to only improve on those numbers as the season progresses.
Wendell Lewis has likewise been very good as the primary big backup. The 6-9 center is hitting 72% of his shot attempts, but doesn't force up attempts. He contributes 5.8 ppg and 5.6 rpg, and actually has more offensive boards (26) than defensive (19) this year. Along with Moultrie, who has also pulled in 26 offensive caroms this year, Lewis gives the Bulldogs a number of second chance points in the lane, and fills his role well.
Overall, Mississippi State has a balanced rotation of eight players that all contribute in various ways. Every player doesn't shoot the lights out, but all defend well and rebound aggressively. MSU has a +7.0 rebounding average over its opponents, and forces them to earn every score.
West Virginia values defense under Bob Huggins, and the Mountaineers will face another team that does the same on Saturday night. Mississippi State hasn't allowed a team to score more than 70 points against it this year, and is holding foes to just 41.6% shooting from the field, including 30.9% from three-point range. Such figures will keep the Bulldogs in just about every game this year, and will provide a big challenge to WVU.
WVU 4-1, 0-0
Mississippi St 7-1, 0-0
WVU - 138
Mississippi State - 96
"We want to get transition," Huggins said. "We're going to try and get as many easy baskets as we can get it, be that from a missed shot or a turnover. We've worked hard and trying to up the tempo a little bit."
A battle on the offensive boards also looms as critical in this contest. WVU (83 offensive rebounds out of 208 overall) and MSU (99 of 212) both count on second chance points, and both have been very good in that play phase to date. Both also have been good on the defensive end, limiting opponents to far fewer offensive boards than they gain.
The key players in this battle -- Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli for WVU, Moultrie and Lewis for MSU -- will be in the spotlight in the lane on both ends of the floor. In addition to trying to keep their teams' offensive board totals at the usual levels, they'll also be responsible for prohibiting the same thing for their foes. The winners of that battle will give their team a huge advantage, which will likely be a deciding factor in the contest.
The Bulldogs are something of a hidden achiever in the SEC, whose basketball notoriety usually starts and stops with Kentucky (with various cameos at times by other teams). MSU has a winning conference record in each of the last three seasons, a feat matched only by Florida. It has reached seven SEC tournament semi-finals (second to UK's eight) and is 16-11 overall in that event.
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While games in December typically aren't as tough as Big East league games in the new year, WVU has still been quite impressive in the final month of the calendar year. WVU is 41-4 in their last 45 games in the month, and certainly not all of those have been easy contests.
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West Virginia is the first Big East team to play a game in Humphrey Coliseum, the site of tonight's game. MSU is 9-13 all-time against Big East foes, none of which have ever made a trip to the Bulldog campus.
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For those comparing scores between West Virginia, Akron and Mississippi State and drawing conclusions, remember that the Zips had point guard Alex Abreu in the 68-58 win over MSU. He was suspended in West Virginia's 20-point win, and his absence was a huge factor in that contest. Also, MSU shot just 34.5% from the field in the loss to Akron -- by far its worst performance of the season.