Game of the Week: No. 7 Tennessee at Mississippi State (Saturday, 7:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV)
With January on its way out and February just starting, it’s time for the best two-month stretch of the sports calendar to begin. From here on out, nearly every game matters, whether it is for at-large considerations, conference title races and for seeding. Since it’s only the midpoint for many conferences, most leagues are still up for grabs. This weekend features plenty of conference clashes, including two Pac-10 showdowns in Stanford at Washington State, and Arizona at UCLA, while two of the Big 12’s best collide as Baylor takes on Texas. However, in the SEC, teams from opposite divisions play each other only once every year, so it’s definitely a treat – and “Game of the Week” – when East leader Tennessee has to go on the road and face once-beaten West leader Mississippi State.
Tennessee Team Breakdown
Tennessee came into the season as the heavy favorite to win the SEC, but struggled a little bit to open the season, getting obliterated by 19 on a neutral court against Tennessee. Since then, though, the Volunteers have been one of the best teams in the country, winning 13 of their last 14 games, with the lone loss at Kentucky. They own wins over Xavier, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Mississippi. UT, the nation’s top-ranked team in the RPI, is ranked No. 12 in offensive efficiency and No. 24 in defensive efficiency.
The Volunteers have one of the deepest, most athletic squads in the country. It starts on the perimeter with All-America candidate Chris Lofton, a senior guard who had struggled shooting the ball this season before knocking down 17 of 32 three-point shots in his last three games. Flanking him is JaJuan Smith, a very good scorer and tremendous defensive player. Smith plays the passing lanes unbelievably well and has very quick hands. The two-headed point guard of Ramar Smtih and Jordan Howell combines to average 15.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists and just 3.2 turnovers per game. Smith is more of a scorer and playmaker, while Howell is a heady player who doesn’t turn the ball over. Former Arizona transfer J.P. Prince is the team’s fourth leading scorer since becoming eligible in mid-December.
Up front, Tyler Smith has made an immediate impact after coming over from Iowa and contributes in a variety of ways. He leads the team in rebounds and assists, and is third in scoring; he might be the most indispensable player on the entire Vols’ roster. Wayne Chism is a good inside-outside scorer who needs to get tougher down low. His scoring is inconsistent, but he has improved as a rebounder throughout the course of the season. Duke Crews missed nine games due to a heart condition, but he is athletic and can finish around the rim. Freshman rebounder Brian Williams has seen increased minutes lately in Crews’ absence, while Ryan Childress is a decent inside-outside option.
Mississippi State Team Breakdown
Mississippi State rode its late-season success last year to a preseason top-25 ranking heading into this season. However, the Bulldogs started just 5-5 in the non-conference, losing to Clemson and Miami (Fl.) at home as well as Miami (Ohio), Southern Illinois and South Alabama. They have since won nine of their last 10, including a 20-point pasting of Mississippi last weekend. The lone loss was Wednesday night on the road against Arkansas. MSU is 5-1 in the SEC so far, and looks like the favorite in the SEC West. It is ranked No. 82 in offensive efficiency and No. 6 at the other end of the floor.
In the backcourt, the Bulldogs are led by one of the best all-around players in the country, 6-4 jack-of-all-trades Jamont Gordon. He is ranked No. 6 in the SEC in scoring, No. 13 in rebounding and No. 5 in assists. He has also cut down on his turnovers, which was a major problem in the past. Joining him on the perimeter are sophomores Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough. Stewart is a very solid double-figure scorer who has struggled with his three-point shot in SEC play, while Hansbrough takes care of the ball and can knock down outside shots. However, he was diagnosed with mono last week and could miss the Tennessee game. If he is out, Phil Turner, who is averaging over 30 minutes per game in the last eight contests, will start. Riley Benock is the team’s best three-point shooter, hitting seven of his last 13 outside attempts.
Up front, Mississippi State has one of the best duos in the SEC in senior Charles Rhodes and sophomore Jarvis Varnado. Rhodes has the ability to be a premier big man, although he had battled bouts of inconsistency and lackadaisical play in the past. He is very effective once he gets the ball down low. Varnado has become a national story over the past few weeks, due to his tremendous shot-blocking ability. He leads the country in blocked shots and is No. 3 in the SEC in rebounds. Varnado alters entire game plans as a result of his prowess in the paint. He had back-to-back 10-block games earlier this month, and is averaging 10.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.0 blocks in the past six games before a disappointing performance against Arkansas. Former Louisville transfer Brian Johnson provides rebounding off the bench.
Game Analysis and Prediction
Although Tennessee remains the SEC favorite in most circles across the country, a loss here would give them their second loss of the league and drop them back in the standings. It will be a match-up of contrasting styles, as Tennessee loves to push the ball in transition for fast-break baskets and force turnovers on the defensive end with its non-stop pressure. The Volunteers shoot a lot of three-pointers and don’t often score many back-to-the-basket points. They are also adept at getting to the basket when defenders overplay the three-pointer. Mississippi State is second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense and blocked shots per game, and is also in the top-30 in rebound margin. The Bulldogs don’t force many turnovers and would much rather play in the half-court than an up-and-down affair. They contest nearly every shot, both inside and outside the arc, and don’t allow many second opportunities.
If Tennessee is going to walk into Starkville and the harsh confines of Humphrey Coliseum and come out with a win, it is going to need to do several things. In fact, of the elite teams, the Volunteers might be the only one that needs so many things to go their way in order to win. First, Tennessee has to impose its style of play on Mississippi State. The Volunteers want to push the ball at every opportunity, while MSU will attempt to make it a half-court game. The Volunteers have more athletes and much more depth than the Bulldogs, and would have a huge advantage if this game is played in the 80s. Secondly, if it is a half-court game, Tennessee needs to knock down its three-pointers and run its offense. The Vols become overly reliant on the three-ball at times, whether it is Chris Lofton, any of the Smiths, or even Wayne Chism. However, in this game, it would suit Tennessee to spread the floor and attempt to take the Bulldogs off the dribble. If Chism, Tyler Smith and co. can draw Jarvis Varnado and the MSU bigs away from the basket, driving lanes and penetration opportunities will open up going towards the lane. Additionally, MSU defends the three very well, so Tennessee will have to hit the open ones. Lastly, Tennessee will have to slow down Charles Rhodes and Varnado inside and keep the Bulldogs off the glass. The Volunteers are one of the worst defensive-rebounding teams in the country and don’t have the size to stop skilled big guys. If MSU dominates the paint and is not forced to make three-pointers, Tennessee could be in trouble.
On the other side, if Mississippi State is to pull off the top-10 upset at home, it will have to play arguably its best game of the year. More specifically, the main thing it can’t do is get caught-up in Tennessee’s transition game. Mississippi State can’t run with the Volunteers, and the Bulldogs could get run out of the building if they try to play a fast-break contest. They need to break the Tennessee press and then either get baskets if they have an advantage or slow it down and run their offense. Forcing plays that aren’t there will only hurt them. Defensively, the Bulldogs will have to contest Tennessee’s three-pointers but also stay in front of dribble-penetration. Gambling on the defensive end won’t make a difference; Tennessee is exceptional with the ball. Despite the pace UT plays at, it leads the country in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. If the Volunteers have open jumpshots and driving lanes, it will cancel out the shot-blocking and size advantage that Mississippi State has. Lastly, Mississippi State will have to take advantage of its size on the offensive end. It starts in the backcourt with Jamont Gordon. He is too big and strong for any of the Volunteers’ guards. He has to take the ball into the paint and finish around the rim, or force Tennessee to foul him. Similarly, Rhodes needs to get enough touches inside to make a difference. He is one of the best big men in the SEC and will have the opportunity to take-over against the average post defenders of Tennessee. UT is awful at defending two-pointers and grabbing defensive rebounds; MSU is suited to exploit that.
This game is going to come down to which team can impose its tempo on the opponent. If the game is in the high 70s or 80s, Tennessee will get an edge because of its athletes and depth. Conversely, if the game is in the 60s or low 70s, the advantage goes to Mississippi State and its size and half-court defense. With MSU playing its best basketball of the season – and the fact the game is in Starkville – I’m going with the Bulldogs.
Prediction: Mississippi State 72, Tennessee 68