Five of Tennessee’s first six conference games were against what should be NCAA Tournament teams. We thought there would be only two others after that, three if Alabama got its act together. But here, in the final week of the regular season, the league has one more surprise in store.
Mississippi State played a bunch of nobodies in an 8-0 start, then went to Cincinnati and lost by 15. A 2-5 start in league play made them an afterthought; they could still aspire to the program’s first NIT appearance since 2012.
But then came four wins in a row, including home victories over Missouri and Alabama. They lost the return trip to CoMo in overtime, then lost by one at Vanderbilt. But they’ve since won three straight, including a huge 12-point win at Texas A&M and an overtime victory against South Carolina. Now the Bulldogs are 21-8 (9-7), 50th in KenPom and 62nd in RPI. This is very much a bubble team, which means this is very much a game the Bulldogs need.
What Mississippi State does well:
- Defensive Efficiency: MSU is 28th in KenPom’s defensive ratings, 35th in effective field goal percentage allowed. They’ve been good at this all year.
- Getting hot at the right time: Five of MSU’s six highest-scoring games in league play have been in February. They actually lost scoring 80+ against Missouri (in overtime) and Vanderbilt, then put 79 on Ole Miss and 93 on Texas A&M on the road. They’re balanced at their best: Quinndary Weatherspoon scores 14.7 per game and brother Nick adds 11.1, but increased production from Tyson Carter and Abdul Ado has fueled their most recent run.
- Shot blocking: Ado is 6’11” and 55th nationally in block percentage, and 6’10” Aric Holman is 73rd in the same stat. MSU sometimes puts both on the floor at the same time, which could create difficult match-ups and opportunities for Tennessee on the block.
What Tennessee can do to win:
- Encourage MSU to shoot threes: The Bulldogs have hit better than 40% from the arc just five times this year. Mississippi State shoots 31.2% from the arc on the year (333rd of 351 nationally) and 30.8% in conference play (13th).
- Don’t be afraid to defend aggressively: The Bulldogs also suffer at the charity stripe, 68.6% on the year (277th) and 69.9% in conference play (10th). They’re not particularly good at getting to the line either. I don’t think it’s in Tennessee’s best interests to do anything to encourage Grant Williams to foul more often, but the rest of the lineup? Might be a good night to get up in their face.
- Take especially good care of the basketball: The Bulldogs force a steal on 9.8% of opponent possessions, 84th nationally. And they’re just as good at not turning it over themselves, which means possessions will be especially valuable. Mississippi State is 14-2 when forcing 13+ turnovers, but just 7-6 when forcing 12 or less.
The Bulldogs have lost just once at home this season, to Auburn on January 13. South Carolina just took them to overtime and Alabama lost by just four earlier this month. They also have not faced Kentucky, Florida, or Texas A&M in Starkville. Will the Bulldogs play their way onto the right side of the bubble? Or will Tennessee stay in the race for the SEC title and firm up its chances for a two or three seed?
Early game woo! 7:00 PM ET, SEC Network.