Yes, at some point we must acknowledge that UK has won nine in a row, and the Bulldogs would be 10. Stansbury tried to downplay this recently saying, "The name of Kentucky naturally doesn't just overwhelm you like it used to because other good teams in the league have had success." Karma, Rick, karma -- remember two weeks ago when Jim Calhoun of UConn said, "But I'm not sure Kentucky is that good," and promptly lost his next two games to lower ranked opponents?
But now, to the instant opponent, Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs are 10-5 (1-1) on the season, and with four starters back and a couple of freshmen who are making an impact, they are a team not to be taken lightly. For starters, notice that the Bulldogs took the now #17 and currently undefeated Clemson Tigers to the wire back in November, and having seen this Clemson team play, I can tell you that is significant. Mississippi State has also lost to Winthrop, George Mason, Missouri and Tennessee, but they haven't been whipped by anybody. Just like us, they defeated Ole Miss, but in Starksville.
Bulldogs by the numbers
The Bulldogs truly are a young team, starting 3 sophomores and two true freshmen. They are lead in scoring by sophomore swingman Jamont Gordon (6'4"/225#/17p/8r/5ast), an Oak Hill product who is delivering for the Bulldogs this season. Gordon is an extremely versatile player who can play every position on the court except center. He can do it all -- rebound, score, pass and defend -- an inside-out threat. He has 3 double-doubles this season and was within 1 assist of a triple-double against Tennessee.
One of Gordon's frontcourt mates is Reginald Delk is a sophomore swingman (6'4"/170#/10p/2reb). Delk is a decent 3-point shooter at 33%. His twin brother Richard Delk (6'4"/170#/10p/2r) doesn't shoot as much, but is deadly when he does (42% from 3) and is a tough defender. Ben Hansbrough (6'3"/200#/8p/3r/4ast), who is the brother of media darling and North Carolina starting center Tyler Hansbrough, is the only true guard in the starting 5. Hansborough also shoots it well from the 3 at 47%, but doesn't shoot that many. He did, however, go 5-of-6 from 3 for 23 points against Texas A&M (Corpus Christi).
The final starter for the Bulldogs is Jarvis Varnado (6'9"/195#/7p/6r), a true freshman forward/center from Tony Delk's hometown of Brownsville, TN. Varnado is a dynamic shot blocker and good rebounder. He has had 3 blocks or more in 7 different games this season, including 7 against New Orleans. Varnado will remind Wildcat fans a lot of Perry Stevenson with his quick leaping ability and long arms.
The bulldogs play 10 players 10 minutes or more per game, so they have a deep bench. Significant contributors include senior swingman Dietric Slater (6'3"/200#/8p/7r) who is playing only his third game back from academic suspension, but recorded a double-double vs. Ole Miss. Barry Stewart (6'2"/165#/12p3r) is a freshman guard who is a deadly shooter from 3 (38%) and a surprising rebounder. Junior forward/center Charles Rhodes (6'8"/240#/12p/6r) is a big, strong inside player who can shoot the ball from the perimeter, although he doesn't do it much. Rhodes had a double-double against Tennessee along with 4 blocks.
Offensively, the Bulldogs play at a tempo very comparable to UK, averaging 70 possessions/game vs. 69 for UK. Their offense is fairly efficient, 61st in the nation against 43rd for UK. The Bulldogs get more offensive rebounds than UK, which we know is one of our vulnerabilities. UK shoots free throws slightly better, but turns the ball over more than Mississippi State.
Defensively, the Wildcats are better at 20th in the nation, but the Bulldogs are no slouch at 36th. In holding its competition shooting down, the Bulldogs are 6th in the nation for FG% and 3rd in the nation for 3-point FG%, vs. 9th and 12th respectively for UK.
What all this means
Mississippi State is a big upgrade in competition for UK over Ole Miss and Auburn. This team can shoot, rebound, and defend. They are still a bit undersized, but they have athleticism to burn. This is the most dangerous team that UK has faced this calendar year, and is a threat to upset us if we don't bring at least our B game into Rupp Arena tonight. MSU shoots well and blocks lots of shots.
Matchup-wise, they have no real answer for Randolph Morris, although the Bulldogs are athletic enough and have enough shot-blockers to make Morris have to work for his baskets. Mississippi State shoots more from the 3 point line than we do, and shoot a solid 38% from there, so defending the 3-pointer will be crucial if the Wildcats want to win. Jasper's size will give the Bulldogs some problems as will Bradley's quickness, but they match up well against Crawford and Perry.
Our bench contribution will be very important in this game, because the Bulldogs throw a lot of bodies at their opponents. Mississippi State has more swing players than any team I have seen recently, and reminds me of some of Denny Crum's more successful teams when he was with Louisville -- 6'4"-6'5" players who can go inside and out, and post up smaller perimeter players. Perry Stevenson should see significant minutes in this game, as he is just the kind of tall, mobile shot blocker that can give MSU some of their own medicine.
Bottom line -- UK should win this one if they play well, but it will likely be close. If UK plays poorly, look for MSU to hand us our first loss this year.