Vanderbilt was served another game that can only be described as "character building" on Wednesday, as another rally against Kentucky fell short and left this team at 4-9 in SEC play. Fortunately, the Commodores will get a tremendous opportunity to record a league win when they travel to Mississippi State on Saturday.
State currently sits in the SEC basement thanks to an 11-game losing streak that derailed a promising 2-0 start to league play. The Bulldogs are undergoing a huge rebuilding process thanks to the firing of coach Rick Stansbury and the loss of players like Renardo Sidney, Dee Bost, and Arnett Moultrie. Young players like Gavin Ware and Craig Sword have looked good in spurts, but the 'Dogs have suffered in 2013 thanks to injuries and suspensions. They'll head into their game against Vanderbilt with only five scholarship players ready to go.
That should make Vanderbilt a considerable favorite despite their sub-.500 record. They'll need a win on Saturday to have a shot at climbing out of the SEC's bottom four and thereby earn a bye on the first day of the league tournament.
Lost in the commotion of Vandy's recent roller coaster of emotion has been the steadily improving play of Rod Odom. Roddy Slater has been an offensive presence for the Commodores lately, putting up more than 15 points and four rebounds per contest in his last five games. Much of that revival has come from a newfound confidence in his three point shot. The junior is making 46.4 percent of his threes over that span but only 35.7 percent of his two-point shots. This is a small sample size, but the up-and-down forward could be rounding into the player that fans hoped he could become when he was a top 100 recruit coming to Nashville.
Neither State nor Vandy rank in the top 300 in the NCAA in terms of per-game scoring, so this could be a brutal one. Don't expect the Hump to be booming with fans of either side - or fast paced basketball - when the two teams tip off at 12:30. This should be a grind through and through - but those are the types of games in which Vanderbilt performs best.
MIssissippi State (17-8 overall, 8-4 SEC, Unranked)
Other Losses: There are 17 of them.
- Challenge shots. State has some good rebounders in Gavin Ware and Colin Borchert, but the Commodores would be better suited by challenging shots rather than getting in position for misses against MSU. A&M recorded eight blocks and their hand-on-hand pressure forced the Bulldogs into a shooting funk. Much of A&M's success came from 7'1" center Justan Banks, but Vandy has a similarly lean presence in the middle in 6'11" Josh Henderson. If Hendo can shore up his help defense and keep his hands up in the paint then Vandy will have a great opportunity to impose their grinding, low-percentage defense on a State team that often struggles to score.
- Take advantage of rookie mistakes. Mississippi State is one of the few teams that the Commodores will face in 2013 that rolls out a younger lineup than theirs. This lack of experience crushed the Bulldogs when they couldn't buy a basket as the clock wound down against A&M. MSU led by five points with under two minutes to play, but three turnovers and a missed Jalen Steele layup led to a big time choke job in Starksville. Vanderbilt has grown considerably this season, and they have the chance to be the team that takes charge in the final minute like Alabama A&M did in December against State.
- Strong perimeter defense. Ware and Borchert are decent big men, but neither are A-1 scoring threats in the paint. State's offense is primarily going to come from guards and wings like Craig Sword, Jalen Steele, Roquez Johnson (suspended for Saturday's game), and Fred Thomas. All four are players who can be rattled by strong and dynamic defense out to the three-point line, and that's something that Vandy can provide with guys like Dai-Jon Parker, Kevin Bright, and the steadily improving Rod Odom.