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Preview: Vanderbilt Heads to Mississippi State and, Hoo Boy, They'd Better Win

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Mississippi State basketball has become a cure for slumping SEC teams in recent years. Can Vanderbilt keep this new and wonderful tradition alive when they travel to Starkville on Saturday?

Craig Sword: living proof that back injuries are the worst.
Craig Sword: living proof that back injuries are the worst.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt needs to rebound after missing out on a big opportunity to record a top 50 win on Wednesday. Fortunately, they've got a struggling Mississippi State team next on the schedule.

The Bulldogs have limped through a disappointing first half of the season thanks to injuries that have chipped away at an already limited team. Key contributors Gavin Ware, I.J. Ready, and Craig Sword have all missed time in the middle of MSU's 9-7 start. As a result, Rick Ray's team has suffered losses to teams like Arkansas State, South Carolina-Upstate, and McNeese State (by 19 points!).

That's not to suggest that these guys can't be dangerous. They ended the college careers of Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom with an upset win in the SEC Tournament last March despite a roster that wasn't significantly different from the one they'll roll out on Saturday. They've also beaten Saint Louis by a greater margin than the Commodores did back in December. While Vandy will be the favorite in Starkville, MSU won't be content to roll over and die for them.

Let's take a deeper look at this weekend's Commodores-Bulldogs matchup.

KenPom Rankings: Mississippi State is 235th (!). Vanderbilt is 56th.

Key Stat: 32.7%. That's the terrible, horrible, very bad, no-good percentage that guard Craig Sword is shooting from the field this year. Sword led the Bulldogs in scoring last season while shooting 48.5%. The junior dropped 20 points on Vanderbilt last season to end the Commodores' season and prevent Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller from graduating with a winning record. Now he's averaging 4.4 points and doing more harm than good while he's on the floor. A back injury has stripped the playmaking wing of his explosiveness, and that's come back to haunt the Bulldogs in 2014-15.

Matchup to Watch: Vanderbilt's defense vs. Mississippi State's Stunning Inability to Pass the Ball. The Bulldog offense is not pretty. It is often a stagnant mess that can only be shocked back to life through turnovers and fast break opportunities. This is illustrated in the team's 8.1 assists per game - a mark that *barely* qualifies for top 350 inclusion among Division I programs. For reference, there are only 351 teams in the division. The two that MSU out-assists are a combined 2-28.

That means Vanderbilt won't have to worry about the Bulldogs passing their way out of their zone defensive schemes. Kevin Stallings does his best work when he's got a rim protector in the middle and capable defenders who understand their assignments in a zone situation. He'll have access to both on Saturday against a team that has struggled to move the ball against even mediocre opponents. That could lead to a huge defensive effort in Starksville.

Starters and Rotation Players:

Vanderbilt
Pos. Player PPG RPG APG
G - Shelton Mitchell 5.4 2.8 4.4
G - Riley LaChance 13.4 3.1 2.6
F - Jeff Roberson 4.5 3.4 1.1
F - James Siakam 9.7 5.9 0.7
C - Damian Jones 15.7 7.1 1.1
Key Reserves
G - Wade Baldwin IV 7.2 3.6 4.2
G/F - Matthew Fisher-Davis 6.1 2.2 0.9
F - Luke Kornet 8.8 4.4 0.8
Mississippi State
Pos. Player PPG RPG APG
G - Travis Daniels 7.4 5.3 0.6
G - I.J. Ready 7.3 1.1 2.1
G - Craig Sword 4.4 1.6 0.8
F - Gavin Ware 9.6 5.9 0.2
F - Roquez Johnson 10.4 5.4 0.6
Key Reserves
G - Fred Thomas 10.4 4.6 0.8
G - Trivante Bloodman 5.8 1.5 2.6
F - Oliver Black 1.6 2.6 0.3