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The SEC's Worst Losses: Mississippi State

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Vanderbilt's tour through the basement of SEC basketball ends on Tuesday when it plays 10-14 Mississippi State.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt improved its NCAA Tournament resume - and gained some breathing room in the SEC standings - by routing Missouri and Auburn last week. Can the Commodores keep their momentum moving when they travel to Starkville on Tuesday?

Vandy will face a 10-14 Mississippi State team currently in the fourth year of an arduous rebuilding process. The Bulldogs have struggled through 2015-16 despite the occasionally brilliant play of Gavin Ware. The senior forward is one of the nation's most efficient scorers and has made nearly 63 percent of his shots this season. The rest of his team, by comparison, is shooting 42.7 percent from the field.

Offense, however, isn't MSU's big issue. The 'Dogs have given up 80 points or more in nine of their 14 losses this winter. In their last eight defeats - all in SEC play - they've allowed opponents to shoot 48.9 percent from the field. Vanderbilt has the shooting and inside prowess to take advantage, and both rose to the surface in Saturday's victory over Auburn. Commodore center Damian Jones needed only 25 minutes to score 17 points and pull down nine rebounds, while the team's starters combined to make over 41 percent of their three-point attempts.

Another performance like that one will carry the 'Dores to a three-game winning streak and nudge the team close to the happy side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. A loss will give the bracket makers one big reason to exclude Vanderbilt from March's festivities. So how do the Commodores avoid disappointment on Tuesday? Here's how UMKC did it back in December.

Mississippi State (10-14, 3-9 SEC, ranked No. 92 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)

Worst Loss: at Missouri-Kansas City (10-15. 3-7 WAC, No. 282 KenPomNo. 265 CBS RPI), 67-72
Other Losses: Lots.

The good news: the Bulldogs beat Missouri this winter. The bad news: they lost to the Tigers' little brother school, Missouri-Kansas City, back in December.

Mississippi State led with 10 minutes to play, but an extended cold snap allowed the Kangaroos to come back for one of their biggest wins of the season. The Bulldogs spent six minutes in a 1-8 shooting slump - a span that helped UMKC pull out to an eight-point lead with four minutes to play. The 'Roos gave that lead right back when they turned the ball over on four straight plays and keyed an 11-0 MSU run, but timely shooting down the stretch helped them defend their homecourt. Mississippi State's backcourt duo of I.J. Ready and Malik Newman combined for 29 points - but needed 30 shots to get there.

Point of emphasis: Attack Gavin Ware. Ware scored an efficient 12 points on six shots against UMKC, but he fouled out with about four minutes to play and left the Bulldogs' shorthanded in their comeback effort. Mississippi State has struggled when Ware heads to the bench with foul trouble. The team is 0-9 this winter when he has four or more fouls in a game.

Keys to the Game:

  • Force the ball to the outside. Mississippi State couldn't find an anchor near the basket in the aforementioned shooting drought that helped sink any chance of a win at UMKC. Six of the team's eight shots in that six-minute span came from three-point range. All of them missed. With the game slipping away, MSU's guards didn't have the juice to keep their team alive. That's not an especially harsh outlier - at 32% for the season, the Bulldogs rank 285th in the nation when it comes to three-point shooting.
  • Get to the rim. The Kangaroos made 22 of their 39 two-point shots by penetrating past MSU's guards and finishing easy baskets in the paint. Vanderbilt has struggled with its drives in seasons past, but the slashing ballhandling of Wade Baldwin, Jeff Roberson, and occasionally Riley LaChance, along with the interior positioning of Damian Jones, should allow the Commodores to get their fair share of quality looks on Tuesday.
  • Protect the ball. UMKC nearly gave this game away with a four turnover, two foul, 90-second stretch that turned an eight-point lead into a three-point deficit. Fortunately, momentum is meaningless so the Kangaroos reclaimed their throne with back-to-back three-pointers. Still, a similar stretch for the Commodores may not end as happily - and could be the cause of several rage-induced heart attacks back in Nashville.