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The SEC's Worst Losses: Mississippi State

The Bulldogs have improved significantly after last year's rebuilding process. Can Gavin Ware bully his way inside and lead Mississippi State to a conference victory over Vanderbilt?

Gavin Ware can't buy regular suits, he typically gets his fitted on a distiller's barrel first.
Gavin Ware can't buy regular suits, he typically gets his fitted on a distiller's barrel first.
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Vanderbilt can make it three wins in a row on Saturday, but a rebuilding Mississippi State team will stand in their way. The Bulldogs have run out to an solid 13-7 record this year. While that includes a 3-4 mark in conference play, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

State has beaten just one team in the top 140 of the CBS RPI, in-state rival Ole Miss (in an upset we covered here last week). After the Rebels, MSU can point to wins over Tulsa (twice), Texas A&M, Florida Gulf Coast, and Auburn as their only significant victories of the season. That kind of schedule is a solid way to build up a program that was ravaged by departures two years ago, but it also pumped up a 13-win record that doesn't have much substance behind it.

Vanderbilt looks worse at 11-8, but while they have more losses, none of those defeats have come against a program outside of the top 100. Mississippi State, on the other hand, has three of those (UNLV, Utah State, and soon-to-be-examined TCU). However, those letdowns against established programs have also left the team bereft of quality wins. Despite a pair of 3-4 conference records, Vanderbilt and State will be battling over a spot on the middle tier of the SEC's rankings on Saturday.

That puts an emphasis on what looks like an unremarkable matchup on paper. On top of those stakes, these two rebuilding programs could signal the return of an underrated rivalry that once pitted Thudbutt Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie against Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne in the paint. Vandy/MSU may not look like much on the surface, but there are currents building here that could make Saturday's game one of the best of the season for the undermanned Commodores.

So how does Vandy win this one? Let's take a look at how TCU did it back in November.

Mississippi State (13-7, 3-4 SEC, unranked in the Coaches' Poll, #196 in the Pomeroy Rankings)

Worst Loss: vs. TCU (9-10, #213 KenPom, #189 CBS RPI), 61-71
Other Losses: at Utah State, vs. UNLV, at Kentucky, at Alabama, at Ole Miss, vs. Florida

Mississippi State led TCU two minutes into this game; from that point on, they trailed - and trailed big. The Horned Frogs stretched their lead to as many as 18 points in the second half as the newly-minted Big 12 members notched one of their biggest wins of the season over the Bulldogs. TCU used some timely shooting to open up the Bulldog defense and create easy baskets inside while MSU struggled to keep up.

Freshman center Karviar Shepherd used his length to pull down 16 rebounds over a MSU frontline that has bulk, but not height. Charles Hill Jr. had 20 points off the bench for the Horned Frogs. State guard Craig Sword got his with 24 points, but no one else on his team scored more than nine as the rest of the Bulldogs shot just 34 percent from the field.

Key to Destruction: Perimeter defense. Mississippi State has players that can score, but they lack an established shooting threat from long range. That lack of diversity killed them against TCU, who forced them into taking bad three-pointers (3-18 for the game) and clogged up the middle when it became clear that MSU wasn't going to score from beyond the midrange.

Keys to the Game:

  • Force other Bulldogs to step up. Craig Sword is a shifty guard who makes things happen at the rim. Gavin Ware is a wide-bodied bulldog who eats up rebounds and thrives off of putbacks and short range shots. However, the 'Dogs are bereft of power behind him. Against TCU, those two combined to create more than 64 percent of their team's points. The pair will be the focal point of Vandy's defensive strategy. If the 'Dores can put the scoring onus on guys like Colin Borchert and Roquez Johnson then Vanderbilt will be able to turn this game into a slopfest - a setting where Vandy often thrives.
  • Play ironman basketball. This should be an easy one for the Commodores to follow. Three TCU starters played 36 minutes or more in their win. Three other players logged at least 24 minutes. The Horned Frogs were able to keep their best players on the court thanks to a deliberate pace - rarely forcing shots - and a gameplan that led to plenty of free throws. If Vanderbilt can follow that path, they'll get some extra juice out of Rod Odom, Kyle Fuller, and Dai-Jon Parker, three players who could see 40 minutes of action on the horizon this Saturday.
  • Plan your threes. TCU doesn't have a ton of established shooters, but they picked and chose their shots in order to create space and keep MSU off balance. The Horned Frogs went 6-14 from long range on the day - a big departure from the 30.9% mark they've maintained through the rest of their season. State is prone to lapses on the perimeter, and that will create some big opportunities for the Commodores. However, Vanderbilt can't afford to force shots if the opening isn't there.

There's a battle brewing between two teams that are anxious to get back to the top of the SEC. The first step back to relevance will come on Saturday, where the winner will earn a spot in the conference's second tier. It will also feature a Gavin Ware/Damian Jones showdown in the paint, and that's a battle that could turn into one of the SEC's best big man rivalries over the next three years. Mississippi State at Vanderbilt doesn't look like much at face value, but there's plenty of undercurrents swirling around this one to keep Commodore fans interested