Vanderbilt heads into a dangerous trap week with tilts against solid squads in Mississippi State and Georgia. The last time the 'Dores dropped a game to a solid BCS team, they followed it up with a loss to Western Kentucky. Hopefully, this time will be different when the MSU Bulldogs make the trip to Memorial Gym.
Vandy has won the last two meetings at Memorial, with the last one being Shan Foster's Senior Night, in which he played the second half blindfolded and handcuffed and still managed to hit nine 3-pointers in a row to deliver an improbable victory.* Though the anguish eventually led Ben Hansbrough to transfer so that he'd never have to experience Memorial Gym again, eight players remain from that 2008 team. However, they'll face a deeper Commodore squad and lack the benefit of a half-full student section due to Spring Break.
Mississippi State (16-5, AP NR, Coaches NR)
Worst Loss: vs. Rider (RPI #131, KenPom #198) 74-88
Other Losses: at Western Kentucky, at Arkansas, at Alabama, vs. Richmond
Mississippi State (RPI #63, KenPom #35) played itself out of the Top 25 voting altogether and onto the thin side of the NCAA Tournament bubble with losses to Alabama and Arkansas the past two weeks before rebounding to beat LSU. The ineligibility of hyped recruit Renardo Sydney, along with the non-impact of John Riek and lack of a crunch time scorer, has dropped the Bulldogs into the second tier of the SEC. Despite the back-to-back conference losses, MSU still leads the SEC East and should be able to coast into the conference tournament with a bye and possibly as division champions.
With a solid core and a star big man in Jarvis Varnado, the Bulldogs pose a serious threat. They returned all five starters from their SEC Tournament champion team of 2009, and have shown that they can hang with elite teams in the past. However, their relatively weak schedule so far (their best win was at Mississippi) makes them a bit of a mystery. With a solid frontcourt and the type of scoring guard (Ravern Johnson) that the Commodores have given up big points to, this could be a tough battle at Memorial Gym.
Key to destruction: Mississippi State was ranked #19 and a huge favorite when Rider came into Starkville and rocked them in the first game of the season. The Broncs (fortunately, the name lives on) trailed throughout the first half until they grabbed the lead with two minutes to play. Rider then built on this momentum and dominated the second frame. Varnado had a huge night, but it wasn't enough, as the closest MSU got was within two points with 13 minutes to play. Kodi Augustus blamed the loss on bad coaching - but it looks more like a case of only one player showing up for the Bulldogs.
The fact that MSU even made the game close is a testament to Jarvis Varnado's play. Without his contribution, the team would have scored 52 points on 33% shooting, and would have given up more points on defense without the big man's seven blocks and 12 defensive rebounds. An unbalanced attack limited the Bulldogs, while Rider spread out their scoring (four players with 15 points or more) and created quality shot attempts (51% FG, 62.5% 3-pt FG). On Wednesday, Vanderbilt will counter with an equally balanced scoring attack and better defense at the 4/5 positions.
Keys to the game:
- A balanced attack - Rider had four guys light up the scoreboard against MSU. Vanderbilt has four guys that average double-digit points per game. Involving everyone will keep the score out of reach against a one-dimensional squad.
- Limit Varnado - Jarvis is nasty, but he's not the scorer he was in the Rider game. In the team's other losses, he's averaged just under 11 points. He'll get his rebounds and blocks, but if Vandy can force the pressure onto the other four guys on the court MSU will have a much tougher path to victory.
Frustrate the players, frustrate the coach - Rick Stansbury is under the hot seat this season, and his players haven't been his biggest supporters this year - especially Augustus. If the 'Dores can play tough, physical defense, they'll just stand to pile more pressure onto an already frustrated team. The Memorial fans needto factor into this as well - if the Commodores are playing well and the crowd is rocking, expect a few technicals on the visitors' side. If you need any ammunition to get the crowd pumped, just use this: