The SEC just gets tougher as the season moves on for the Kentucky Wildcats as they travel down to Starkville to face the Mississippi St. Bulldogs. MSU is always a tough out for the Wildcats, and this game figures to be no different.
The Bulldogs and the Mississippi Rebels were figured to fight it out for the West this year, and so far, that has been the case. But out of the back of the pack, seemingly from nowhere, the Arkansas Razorbacks have surprisingly amassed six wins in the West to share the divisional lead with MSU, so this is a critical game for the Bulldogs' hope to wind up with the #1 seed from the West in the SEC Tournament.
Let's take a quick look at the comparison between the Bulldogs and the Wildcats, courtesy of Statsheet.com:
|Rank and Records||UK||MSU|
|Strength of Schedule||#63||#119|
|RPI Top 50||7-0||3-1|
Major top-50 victories this year for the Bulldogs have come versus the Old Dominion Monarchs (22), the Mississippi Rebels twice (42). Major losses include the Richmond Spiders (45), and MSU has bad losses to the Rider Broncs (196) and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (132).
More after the jump. Just like last time, I did the first part of this analysis and Ken did the second part starting with the position analysis. For more on the Mississippi St. Bulldogs, be sure to check out the SB Nation Mississippi St. blog, For Whom the Cowbell Tolls.
We will begin the analysis by the usual look at the dashboard. Don't forget, this thing is interactive.
Four Factors Analysis
A quick glance at the offensive and defensive efficiencies of these two teams tell you a lot about them -- Kentucky is a much better offensive team, and the MSU is a slightly better defensive team.
Moving the left-hand slider over to display just the last ten games represents the SEC season. Kentucky's offensive efficiency is in the middle of the yellow range there, and MSU's is well into the red. That's because the Bulldogs rank only 89th overall in adjusted offensive efficiency, where the Wildcats are #18. Both teams seem to have plateaued with MSU's trend slightly positive and UK's slightly negative.
Defensively, the graph is more interesting. UK was a better defensive team early in the SEC season, but right around the sixth game, the two lines crossed and MSU became the better defensive team, and that trend appears to be fairly stable at the moment.
Turning to the Four Factors on offense, the Wildcats win all but one category -- turnovers. That's not surprising, since turnovers are the one thing that has hampered the Wildcats all season. Notice also that Kentucky is starting to get very close to the kinds of numbers on offense that will make them a serious contender in the NCAA tournament.
Defensively, both teams are very good in eFG% defense. Kentucky is better at forcing turnovers, but the Bulldogs do an even better job at defensive rebounding and keeping opponents off the free throw line than Kentucky does, which is the first time we have seen UK on the short end of those stats in a while.
Mississippi State is a good three-point shooting team, nearly as good as Kentucky overall. The Bulldogs average 36.5% from three this year, but in SEC play they are only shooting 31%. However, MSU takes a ton of shots from the arc -- nearly 43% of their shots are from three. That makes them a very dangerous team for Kentucky, as Kentucky is not a good 3-point defensive team.
Both UK and MSU like to run, but it will be interesting to see if the Bulldogs try to do that with Kentucky. Kentucky would seem to have an advantage over anyone in the open floor, so I suspect we will see more of a half-court game from Rick Stansbury's charges. It will also be interesting to see how Kentucky solves the puzzle of Jarvis Varnado, and if MSU will spend more time in a zone defense than man with Varnado patrolling the paint.
Mississippi St. Bulldogs Basketball Roster
|Kodi Augustus||24||F||Starter, significant contributor||220||6-8||junior|
|Riley Benock||15||G||Reserve, limited role
|Dee Bost||3||G||Starter, significant contributor
|Ravern Johnson||2||G||Starter, role player
|Wendell Lewis||30||C||Reserve, role player
|Romero Osby||5||F||Reserve, significant contributor||230||6-8||sophomore|
|Barry Stewart||22||G||Starter, role player
|Phil Turner||25||G||Reserve, role player
|Jarvis Varnado||32||F||Starter, significant contributor||230||6-9||senior|
Position Analysis: Point Guard
Dee Bost, Mississippi State's 6-2 point guard, has become the Dogs top point scorer in SEC play, averaging 14.0 points per game. Bolstering his scoring stats was his 32 points (11-19 fg's, 7-12 three-pointers) in MSU's overtime victory versus Auburn on Saturday. His tremendous shooting versus Auburn belies his SEC and overall shooting percentages, though; On the year he makes only 37.0% of his field goal attempts (38.3% in league play), and his three-point shooting has experienced a precipitous drop from 34.1% (44-129) overall, to 28.6% in SEC play (16-56).
Although Bost can score when needed, he is excellent at distributing the ball, averaging 4.9 assists per game in league play. And since handing out only one assist, and turning it over six times versus Vanderbilt on February 3, Bost has dished out 16 dimes to only eight turnovers in the last three games.
Bost also will crash the boards; He averages 4.1 rebounds per game in conference play.
UK"s John Wall will look to continue his steady play, after scoring 24 points on 7-15 shooting versus Tennessee on Saturday.
Wall's extreme quickness in penetrating to the basket might be rendered a "moot advantage" for the 'Cats this evening due to the uncanny shot blocking ability of MSU's Jarvis Varnado. But, Wall and John Calipari might choose to test the big man (along with attempting to get Varnado in foul trouble) by finding the seam in the zone, and taking the ball to the rim.
Position Analysis: Two-Guard
Barry Stewart, MSU's 6-3 senior shooting guard, must be closely guarded on the perimeter. Stewart has taken 63 three-point tries in SEC play (6.3 per game), making 24 (38.1%). Stewart is a crafty player, capable of creating his own shot, but MSU coach Rick Stansbury will also run curls, and staggered screens to get his sharp-shooter open looks.
Stewart's scoring average has risen slightly since the start of conference play, going from 11.4 points per game, to 11.8 points per contest. And since going 1-7 from long-range at Alabama on January 23, Stewart has made 17-43 trey ties (39.5%).
UK's Eric Bledsoe, coming off a solid shooting performance against Tennessee (5-9, 3-6 three-pointers), has a definite quickness advantage against Stewart, but with the nations leading shot blocker roaming the middle of the MSU defensive paint, whether Bledsoe chooses to utilize his quickness in the half-court is in question.
Advantage: Slight Kentucky
Position Analysis: Off-Guard
Six-seven Ravern Johnson, who is averaging 12.4 points per game in SEC play, is the definition of a long-range bomber. Overall, of his 257 shots, 151 have been three-point attempts, and in league play, 54 of his 102 shots have been treys.
Johnson leads the Bulldogs in scoring for the entire season (13.7 points per game), but as noted above, his point production has dropped slightly to 12.4 points per game in SEC play. The culprit in Johnson's less productive point production is his less accurate three-point shooting -- On the year Johnson is making 43.0% of his trey attempts (65-151), but in conference action he's made only 18-54 (33.3%).
Johnson has made a three-pointer in every game this season except at Alabama on January 23, since then he's made 11-34 (32.4%).
Kentucky's Darnell Dodson, coming off a less than spectacular performance against UT (13 minutes, 2-6 fg's, 1-4 threes), will look to regain his foothold on the starting "3" spot. Having made only 2 of his last 10 long-range shots, tonight's contest should provide Dodson with ample opportunity to improve his three-point shooting numbers.
Advantage: Slight Mississippi State
Position Analysis: Power Forward
Jarvis Varnado ... a name UK fans love to hate. The nations leading shot blocker (5.0 blocks per game) has feasted on the boys in blue over the last two years by blocking 17 shots in only two games. Part of the reason for Varnado's impressive shot blocking versus UK has been the 'Cats' game-plan, which has consisted of driving the lane and watching the ball fly into the stands. At 6-9, 230 lbs, Varnado isn't crazy big, but he possesses very long arms.
Varnado will block a high percentage of his shots coming from off the ball, and is uncannily accurate when timing his jump. He'll also use the opponents' body for leverage by using his arms to gain heigth on his jump. It's an illegal move, but one he hasn't been whistled for with any consistency. Varnado has seen his offensive efficiency drop slightly in league play: Overall he makes 56.1% of his shots, 45.8% in SEC contests.
Varnado poses the biggest one-on-one threat to UK's DeMarcus Cousins in the UK big man's short career. Cousins has a two inch advantage in height, but Varnado's arm length will demand Cousins' utilizes his plethora of moves around the basket. Varnado also crashes the boards with gusto, averaging a league-leading 11.3 rebounds per game (12.0 rpg, 3.5 offensive rebounds pg in SEC play).
Varnado has on his resume' this season 10 blocks versus Arkansas, and nine against Vanderbilt, and 15 double-doubles (five in a row).
Cousins should be highly motivated tonight after coming off what was his poorest outing of the year versus UT: 29 minutes, 2-6 fg's, 1-8 ft's, five points, and 12 rebounds (six offensive). Cousins was clearly frustrated at the free throw line, allowing his struggles from the field to effect his focus. Tonight, in a hostile environment, matched up against the top shot blocker in the nation, Cousins' maturity will surely be sorely tested.
Advantage: Slight Kentucky
Position analysis: Small Forward
Kodi Augustus, MSU's 6-8, 220 lb small forward, has struggled in SEC play. Shooting an unimpressive 38.6% overall from the field, his shooting has been even worse in league play: 32.9% from the field (25-76), and 14.3% from beyond the arc (4-28). Augustus, in his 21.4 minutes per game in SEC play, is grabbing a respectable 5.9 rebounds per game, to go along with his 2.5 offensive rebounds per game.
Kentucky's Patrick Patterson may be required to stay closer to the painted area tonight in an effort to play "Robin" to Cousins' "Batman," forming down low dueling big men. But of course, John Calipari may think it wise to pull Patterson away from the basket, thus bringing with him Augustus, leaving Cousins to his own devices when attacking the rim against Varnado.
The chess match involving both club's big men will go a long way in determining the winner of tonight's contest.
Advantage: Big Kentucky
MSU head coach Rick Stansbury bring primarily three players off the bench: Phil Turner a 6-3 guard, who averages 6.3 points per game in SEC play, will spell Bost, and also play the two-guard. Turner is a three-point shooter, but in league play he's making the trey at only a 26.9% rate, and he's missed his last 14 trey attempts over the last four games: Romero Osby, a 6-8 forward who likes to venture out beyond the three-point line, has seen his three-point accuracy drop since the start of SEC play, also; Overall he makes the long-range shots at 41.4% (12-29), but in league play he's made only 5-15 treys (33.3%). Osby averages 5.4 points per game in SEC play in only 13.6 minutes per game: Riley Benock (6-4 guard) is yet another designated three-point shooter, but as with Ravern Johnson, Benock's three-point accuracy has waned since league play began; Overall, Benock (a Meade County product) has made 15-40 treys (37.5%), but against league competition he's made only three of 12 from behind the line (25.0%)
UK will once again bring Daniel Orton, Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris, Darius Miller, and DeAndre Liggins off the bench.
Liggins, coming off a season-high 28 minutes versus UT, is quickly making a grand argument for starting. His defensive intensity, energy, and solid decision-making continue to impress both UK fans, and more importantly, head coach John Calipari.
Advantage: Slight Kentucky
Kentucky's three-point defense will be tried tonight. The Bulldogs average taking 25 three-pointers per game, and greatly rely on the long shot to take pressure off Varnado down low. MSU will utilize the pick and roll to a great extent, and play some high-low offense. UK must continue to play solid half-court defense, with plenty of communication among the players on the floor.
MSU will attempt to slow the pace of the game, primarily because of their disadvantage in the athleticism and depth departments. In Starkville (in SEC play), the Bulldogs are averaging 73.8 points per game (taking away the 11 points they scored in OT versus Auburn on Saturday), while giving up 67.6 points per game, and Stansbury knows his best chance at victory will be to keep the game in the 60's or lower. Kentucky must also crash the boards, as they are wont to do, because MSU is a great rebounding team, mostly because Stansbury coaches everyone on the floor to block-out, and attack the rim on the shot.
UK must push the pace, and attack the 2-3 zone Stansbury will surely play. Nothing new there, but Kentucky will be performing in a boisterous, rowdy arena, while facing a quality opponent. And the last time UK faced such a circumstance, a big blue egg was layed in a loss at South Carolina.
John Calipari must decide whether to challenge Varnado with a driving Wall and Bledsoe, hoping to get MSU's shot blocker in foul trouble, or simply loosen the zone with made three-pointers ... which brings up this point: UK must make the three-pointer tonight. Although Cousins is performing at an All-America level, MSU will attempt to bury UK with the three, and a huge negative disparity in made three-pointers will spell doom for the 'Cats.
Projected Score: Kentucky 71 Mississippi State 67