As always, I am constantly trying to improve what we offer here on A Sea of Blue. Consequently, I have changed the format for pre-game analysis just a bit. I'll be using this template from now on, or until I think of something better. For the statistical comparison between UK and MSU, please check my earlier post below.
Kentucky comes into Starkville sporting a shiny new victory against ranked Vanderbilt University this Saturday in Rupp Arena. Even so, this season has been a trying one for the Cats, and although they are now undefeated in conference play, this is their first conference road trip of the year and represents another opportunity for the Wildcats to pick up their first win away from Rupp Arena this season. Rick Stansbury has the Bulldogs on a 6-game winning streak and undefeated in SEC play. MSU has played a much softer non-conference schedule than Kentucky, but they have had more success.
Mississippi State has many of the same warts as Kentucky -- turnover prone, occasionally poor shooting with long droughts, trouble finding offense. But they are an outstanding rebounding and extraordinary shot-blocking team. They have lost only two games this year in Humphrey Coliseum, so UK is definitely facing a challenge tonight.
The top players for the Bulldogs are as follows:
Per Game Averages
More Player Stats
The normal starting rotation is highlighted above, however Ben Hansborough has a broken hand and may not play, so Turner will probably start for him.
There are two very notable players that need special attention: Jamont Gordon and Jarvis Varnado. Varnado, as you can see above, is averaging over 5 blocked shots per game, and has blocked 10 shots in 2 games and 5 or more in 8 others. He is very reminiscent of Perry Stevenson in build, but he is certainly doing more in the shot blocking area than Stevenson this year.
The other big concern is Jamont Gordon. Gordon is one of those players who, at 6-4/225#, can play any position on the floor except maybe for the 4 and 5. He is a big guard in the mold of Joe Crawford, and can score from anywhere on the floor. He is down significantly in assists and rebounds this year, but others on the team have taken up that slack very effectively. Gordon is also effective on the glass, averaging almost 7 rebounds per game.
Mississippi State is not a particularly efficient offensive team, and has struggled at times to find points. Gordon, Rhodes and Stewart are the main scoring threats on this team, and although Gordon is only shooting 29% from three, he buried a last-second 3-pointer last year in the SEC tournament to send the game into overtime and ultimately eliminate Kentucky. Varnado and Rhodes do all their damage inside, but Stewart is a capable perimeter player.
MSU is not a particularly good shooting team, they do most of their damage on defense. Rick Stansbury plays at a somewhat similar pace as Kentucky, which likely means that neither team will try too hard to control the pace of play. Expect a game somewhere in the mid to high 60's or low 70's
This MSU team is a very good defensive squad, ranking 6th in the nation in points allowed. A large part of that is their excellent perimeter size and overall athleticism, plus the fact that they have the human eraser, Varnado, patrolling the paint.
When MSU gets it going defensively, they can really lock teams down. MSU has limited its last 4 opponents to 35% or less FG%, and their last opponent, LSU, only managed 27% shooting against the Bulldogs.
MSU is basically a man-to-man team, but they aren't allergic to zone, and may well try the match-up zone that Louisville used so effectively against Kentucky.
Intangibles favor MSU, but only slightly. Both teams have important players banged up and likely unavailable. MSU is at home, and The Hump is a very tough place to play. Kentucky is coming off a statement win and should be very fired up and anxious to start a streak. MSU has won a number of games in a row and is somewhat ripe for the picking, although doing it on their home court could be very challenging.
Kentucky wins if:
- Patterson plays well in the post.
- they play even with the Dawgs on the boards.
- they play defense like they did against the 'Dores.
- they commit 12 turnovers or less.
- they keep the ball out of Jamont Gordon's hands.
MSU wins if:
- Patterson is contained.
- Gordon runs amok.
- they dominate the glass.
- Kentucky can't run effective offense against their pressure.
- any of Kentucky's best 3 scorers is in foul trouble.
This is a winnable game, but MSU will put great pressure on Kentucky's offense, which has been inefficient all year. If UK can continue to play strong defense and create offense from turnovers, they have a chance. MSU is not nearly as skilled offensively as Vanderbilt is, and tends to turn the ball over as much as the Commodores do. As we saw on Saturday, when you can get baskets from defense, it motivates the team and generally yields good results.
I like the Cats in this one, primarily because of what I saw on Saturday. Realistically though, this team has been anything but consistent, and this is another test of consistency. Kentucky needs to pass that test, or the season will look far more bleak than it did just a couple of days ago.