Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
-- #100 Mississippi St. (9-5) has not had a great start to the season, and it will face a difficult mid-major challenge when #84 Western Kentucky (9-4, 3-0) comes to Starkville.
Western Kentucky had an inauspicious start to the season, losing road games to Houston and Murray St., but then went on a strong run, beating Louisville and Georgia. The Hilltoppers have suffered two blowout losses to Evansville and Florida St. since then, but have also got off to a great start in Sun Belt play, and are coming off a 32-point win over Arkansas-Little Rock. Mississippi St. may have had the weakest start in the SEC, losing to Charlotte, San Diego and Texas Tech, among others, and have alternated wins and losses since the start of December, unable to find any consistency.
Western Kentucky is a solid offensive team for one reason, three point shooting. In the other major offensive areas, the Hilltoppers are an average team, but they make 41% of their long-distance attempts, placing them among the best in the nation. They’ll need that shooting to be on in this game, as Mississippi St. will give them very little space inside. The Bulldogs defend the interior as well as any team in the country, allowing opponents to score on just 37.5% of their two point shots, and blocking more than one of every five opposition attempts. They also manage to commit very few fouls while defending, but they are surprisingly weak on the defensive boards, and force few turnovers.
Mississippi St. is only average on the offensive end, and it doesn’t have any area in which it excels. The Bulldogs’ strongest shooting comes inside, and they are good at getting to the free throw line. They tend to cough the ball up a lot, but Western Kentucky don’t force many turnovers and shouldn’t cause them too much trouble. The Hilltoppers are an average defensive team, better on the inside than the perimeter, but they shouldn’t be too much impediment to the Bulldogs.
Senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez set Hilltopper history on New Year’s Day, picking up 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists for the first triple-double in WKU history. Remarkably, that game was the first time Mendez-Valdez had reached double-digits in either rebounds or assists. He’s a solid shooter and a very good ball distribution guard. A.J. Slaughter leads the team in scoring, an effective shooter from inside and outside. Steffphon Pettigrew is another starter who shoots well from outside, while Sergio Kerusch is one of the Sun Belt’s best rebounders at 6-5. Jeremy Evans is the most inside-focused player on the Hilltoppers, and makes nearly 60% of his field goals while contributing more than 2 blocks a game. Sophomore D.J. Magley is another useful inside player off the bench.
Mississippi St. depends a lot on the nation’s best shot-blocker, Jarvis Varnado. Varnado is a 62% shooter, and averages 10 rebounds a game. Like Mendez-Valdez, he also has recorded a triple-double, coming last season against Kentucky. Varnado still has too many games in which he doesn’t get a lot of shots, and needs to be an offensive, as well as defensive, force. Ravern Johnson is a 6-7 forward who can hit three-pointers at a good rate. Freshman Dee Bost leads the team in assists and steals, but his shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Barry Stewart is another starter who gets a lot of minutes, but he has also struggled with his shot, barely at 35% from the field and 30% from three. A lot of Mississippi St.’s offensive problems have been caused by the high number of wasted shots from these two guards. Phil Turner has been a much more effective shooter off the bench, as has freshman Romero Osby, who also does well on the glass and in getting to the line. Riley Benock is a decent three-point specialist, and Kodi Augustus is an inside depth player who has been benched by Rick Stansbury for the last couple of games.
This is a tough pick, but the Hilltoppers haven’t been too good away from home this season, and Mississippi St. should be able to do enough inside to take a close victory. If Western Kentucky get in a shooting groove from three, however, things will be very different.
Winner: Mississippi St. Margin: 4-8