After a decade of disappointment in the SEC Tournament, Kevin Stallings has enjoyed some significant success in the league's finale over the past two years. 2012 brought a breakthrough SEC Championship on the backs of players like John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli. 2013, while not as successful, got the Commodores to the conference's final four despite losing 95% of their scoring from the previous year.
Now, Kevin Stallings will have to prove that he can sustain that momentum despite an auspicious end to the season. Vandy will head to Atlanta on the tail end of a four-game losing streak. The past two weeks have left a bad taste in the mouths of Vanderbilt fans, as the 'Dores sandwiched losses in three winnable contests (against Florida, LSU, and Ole Miss) around an out-and-out skunking to arch-rival Tennessee.
Any Vanderbilt revival will start against 13-18 Mississippi State, who finished dead last in a weak SEC this year. To suggest that the Bulldogs have struggled lately would be a gift to understatement. Rick Ray's team hasn't won a game since January 22nd. During that 13-game losing streak, they've kept their opponents' margin of victory in the single digits just three times.
That includes a 55-49 Commodore victory of which ESPN Classic has already torched the master copies. Vandy won ugly, as they are wont to do, behind an ironman basketball effort and a tight defense that kept every Bulldog but Fred Thomas from scoring more than nine points. If Vanderbilt wins again on Wednesday, they will clinch a .500 record (or better) barring any surprising postseason invitations. That's a big accomplishment for a team that's only got seven scholarship players - and two true freshman - on the active roster.
Neither team has momentum on their side, but a win on Wednesday will mean a rematch against Ole Miss for either an in-state rival or the team that was a few friendly bounces away from beating the Rebels in the regular season finale. An early exit from the league bracket would erase the goodwill that Stallings and this Vanderbilt squad had built up this season and in the two conference tournaments prior. Every game from here on out will be the most important of the year for the 'Dores.
So can Vandy follow South Carolina's lead and earn a big win over Mississippi State? Let's take a closer look at how the Gamecocks turned back the Bulldogs last week.
Mississippi State (13-18, 3-15 SEC, unranked in the Coaches' Poll, #242 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
(Second) Worst Loss: vs. South Carolina (12-19, #136 KenPom,#155 CBS RPI), 62-74 Other Losses: at Utah State, vs. UNLV, vs. TCU, against every other team in the SEC except Ole Miss.
Frank Martin didn't get to coach his players for their 12-point road win in Starksville, but it didn't make a difference as his team rallied for win that kept them out of the SEC basement. Martin donated his game check back to the university after calling one of his players an "asshole" during a timeout, but that motivation may have helped the Gamecocks fend off State's second-half comeback efforts.
USC ran out to an early 16-4 lead that put State on their heels. However, the road team rallied back to take 47-39 advantage thanks to Craig Sword and Fred Thomas's hot hands. The duo combined to score 18 to MSU's first 20 points after halftime to give the Bulldogs a short-lived lead. It wouldn't be enough; Carolina punched back with four straight three-pointers to open up an insurmountable lead and take home a 74-62 victory.
Key to Destruction: Caring. The Bulldogs were saying goodbye to a pair of players on Senior Night last week against South Carolina, but failed to carry any of that emotion over to the court. USC took an early double-digit lead, and while the Bulldogs were able to come back after halftime, they didn't have the firepower to make a second comeback late. Carolina came out firing, even without their emotional coach on the sideline. That ultimately made the difference against a team who seemed to just be playing out the string of a long list of SEC losses.
Vanderbilt has much more to play for than the Bulldogs. They'll have to act like it to notch an expected win on Wednesday.
Keys to the Game:
Stop Craig Sword. Sword's streaky play helped State take their first lead of the game in the second half, and he ended up leading his team with 19 points. The sophomore guard has developed into the Bulldogs' biggest offensive threat, and he and Thomas nearly willed this team to a Senior Night win last week. Vandy shut Sword down when these teams first met, holding the volume-shooting guard to just four points in a Commodore win. They'll have to replicate that performance in order to move on to the next round of the SEC Tournament.
Create Second Chances. South Carolina took 15 more shots that MSU did in their win, a staggering difference created by the Gamecocks' 21 offensive rebounds. USC has a tenacious clean-up guy up front in Michael Carrera, but it was actually 6'5" guard Sindarius Thornwell who kept SC's possessions alive with seven offensive boards. Vanderbilt is a better rebounding team than the 'Cocks are. Big performances from Damian Jones and James Siakam up front could lead to a similarly significant possession disparity on Wednesday.
Don't let Gavin Ware touch the ball in the post. Ware is averaging 10 points per game for the Bulldogs on an efficient 58.9 FG%, but he only got three shots off against USC and missed them all en route to just three points. Ware is a burly big man who can create space with the ball inside, but the Gamecocks were able to keep the ball out of his hands by cutting off passes to the interior and making his put-back attempts difficult. Vandy will have to try to do the same to limit State's interior scoring.
Vanderbilt needs a win on Wednesday to salvage a season that's gone sour over the past two weeks. Playing Mississippi State will give the 'Dores a proper bounce-back opponent. However, the Bulldogs won't just roll over, and Vandy will need its seniors to lead them to their 16th win of the season - a victory that would extend their season for one more important day.
In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.