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GAME DAY REPORT: Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State

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Vanderbilt (18-8, 8-4 SEC) vs. Mississippi State (15-10, 6-6), Wednesday, February 20, 2007. Tip-off: 7:00 P.M. CT.
RPI: Vanderbilt: 32 (21 SOS); MSU: 68 (41 SOS)
Sagarin ratings: Vanderbilt 50; MSU 48
Rankings: Vanderbilt is ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, and No. 21 in in the USA Today/ESPN coach's poll. MSU is not ranked in either poll.
Line: Mississippi State is a six point favorite.
Series info: Vanderbilt leads 70-40. MSU has a 28-22 advantage in Starkville. The Commodores won last year's meeting 80-52 in Nashville on Jan. 21, 2006.
Coaches: Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt (140-104) and his 14th year overall (263-167); Rick Stansbury is in his ninth year at Mississippi State (179-100) and his ninth year overall (179-100).
Radio: In Nashville, the game is carried on the ISP Radio Network (WGFX 104.5 FM).
Television: None.
3 - Alex Gordon, G, 5-11, 164, Jr., Pensacola, Fla. (7.9 ppg, 3.7 apg)
32 - Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, Jr., Kenner, La. (15 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
4 - Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 230, Sr.-Tr., Memphis, Tenn. (16.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 apg)
20 - Dan Cage, G, 6-5, 215, Sr., Indianapolis, Ind. (11.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.0 apg)
41 - Ross Neltner, F, 6-9, 247, Jr.-Tr., Fort Thomas, Ky. (10.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.3 apg)
Mississippi State
44 - Jamont Gordon, G, 6-4, 225, So., Nashville,Tenn. (16.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 4.6 apg)
24 - Reginald Delk, G, 6-4, 175, So., Jackson, Tenn. (9.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg)
1 - Richard Delk, F, 6-4, 175, So., Jackson, Tenn. (6.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
22 - Dietric Slater, F, 6-3, 200, Sr., Wayneboro, Miss. (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
23 - Charles Rhodes, C, 6-8, 240, Jr., Jackson, Miss. (12.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg)
After enjoying life at the top of the SEC West for several years, State started seeing how the other half lived last season. Miserable would hardly describe the malaise Stansbury endured last year, after losing two freshman recruits to the NBA, and seeing all five starters depart from the program.
State's trip to Nashville last year was one of the most decisive whippings Vandy delivered all season. Gordon, pressed into action at the point, was shredded early and often by over-playing double teams, leading to a ton of turnovers and easy fast break layups.
This year, after a rough start, things have begun to look up for MSU. A year older and wiser, State's youngsters have begun to figure things out. Jackson' Tennessee's Delk twins have taken over starting jobs at the one and two, and have provided the steadying quality that was severely lacking last year for Stansbury.
No surprise here, but MSU's go to guy is one of the SEC's best all-everything athlete, Jamont Gordon. The Nashville Glencliffe native is one of just seven players in nation to lead squad in scoring, rebounding and assists. Gordon's 16.9 points per game in SEC games ranks fifth in the league. Alabama's Richard Hendrix, at 10, is the only other sophomore to rank in the top 10 in that category.
One stat to watch: Gordon has also attempted 57 free throws in conference play. That's more charity attempts than any other player ranked in the top 30 in league scoring.
Helping Gordon out is Rhodes, who may be one of the most unsung players in the league. As college basketball has increasingly moved away from the traditional post, Rhodes has developed into a sometimes devistating force in the middle. Rhodes is not overly mobile or speedy, but he is wiley around the basket and can dish out punishing body blows.
One other player to watch tonight is freshman Barry Stewart. The diminutive point guard, on first glance, looks like he couldn't play for Belmont. But it doesn't take long to see why many believe he is a future star in Starkville. He can handle the ball like a seasoned veteran, and also ranks fourth in the SEC in free throw percentage.
Like most SEC teams, MSU has embraced a faster paced offense. The Bullies are third in the SEC in scoring offense, at 75.5 in league play. Vandy, by comparison, ranks fifth at 73.6. Expect an uptempo contest tonight.
MSU, like Vandy, is undersized, playing 6-3 Slater at the four. That is a good matchup for Cage, who has performed masterfully this season defending much bigger and stronger frontcourt athletes. By playing small, though, State is just eighth in the league in defense. VU, by comparison, ranks sixth.
VU and MSU rank second and third in the SEC in free throw shooting, though State has attempted 48 more than Vandy. Many of those are coming from Gordon, who can be a ball hog and prone to devolving into one-on-one play.
Perhaps surprisingly, MSU ranks fourth in the league in 3-point shooting, behind Florida, Vandy and Tennessee, respectively. And, they are second in the SEC in 3-point defense and blocked shots. State is also the second best offensive rebounding team in the league.
Though Vandy is the higher ranked team in every national poll (see above), it's easy to see why State is favored by six points tonight. MSU has won their last three games, and is tied for the SEC West lead with surprising Ole Miss and underachiving Alabama.
However, State has loaded up on western division teams that do little to boost their RPI.
With just four games left, this is a must win game for Stansbury if he has hopes of making the Big Dance as an at large team. Conversely, most believe that, after upsetting No. 1 Florida Saturday, VU would be a lock should they get just one more victory.
Mike Rapp
Franklin, Tenn.
VandySports.com Publisher
Vanderbilt's magical mystery tour continues, after their stunningly dominant upset of top ranked Florida on Saturday. This is a team on a roll now, and has begun to establish themselves as an en vogue pick to do serious damage in the NCAA Tournament.
But fun as it certainly is, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Vandy may well be a lock for the Big Dance, but there is a whole lot of unfinished business. A strong finish down the stretch could give Vandy a high single digit seed in the NCAA Tournament; A first round bye in Atlanta wouldn't hurt either.
At the beginning of the SEC schedule, there were two teams I was most worried about: MSU and Ole Miss. Fortunately, Vandy got Ole Miss before they found their legs. MSU, however, looms. That the Bulldogs are a six point favorite despite Vandy's run of six wins over ranked opponents tells you how tall a task this game will be for them tonight.
MSU plays small, which helps Vandy. But Rhodes is a hoss, and so is Gordon. Frankly, I think Skuchas, Metcalfe and Neltner will have all they can handle tonight, and need to stay well clear of foul trouble if VU is to survive.
The key will be how well Byars defends Jamont Gordon, and vice versa. I sure regret that this game isn't televised, because these two are probably the best players in the SEC at their position. What a war that matchup promises to be.
After witnessing the upset Saturday, I worry about the team moving on emotionally. But nothing brings you back to earth quicker than a trip to the metropolis that is Starkpatch.
I think Vandy is far tougher to defend for MSU than MSU is for Vandy. The Delks are fine young players, but lack the explosiveness that Foster has outside or in. Of course, if Cage, Byars, Neltner and Foster aren't shooting well, all bets are off. But I expect the roll to continue tonight, as the Commodores punch their ticket to the Big Dance in earnest tonight.
Vanderbilt 85, Mississippi State 83
Tommy Crockett
Reno, Nev.
VandySports.com Staff Writer
Vanderbilt is looking at the classic trap game in terms of heading into a space where they rarely win coming off the biggest win for the men's Basketball team in almost fifteen years. Go pencil in -- no, ink in -- Vandy as a lock for the NCAA. And remember that a talented but young Bulldog squad needs to win every home game to claw their way back into the tourney picture. This game just has "OUCH" written all over it for the sky high Commodores.
Vanderbilt is winning, but the vulnerabilities that have been there all along still are ripe for the opponent's picking. The Commodores have gotten to where they stand now (from a spot earlier on when the season had a smell of disaster) by execution and senior leadership. Mississippi State while at 15-10 is still 6-6 in conference and within spitting distance of winning the SEC West. They might not have a dominant frontcourt, but Gordon is leading the 'Dogs in rebounds, assists and points per game.
In a word, the team is athletic. Frankly the Commodore vulnerabilities seem to mirror the Bulldog efficiencies.
Never mind that Vandy will need every trick in its bag to win in Starkville. The limb is getting a little shakier than even last prediction but I'm feeling strangely optimistic. Sagarin thinks Vanderbilt is the underdog. Win this game and it becomes the best ever conference season for Stallings regardless of how the rest of the season transpires.
Milestone, weekday, and all that sort of thing -- so I'll predict:
Vanderbilt 80, Mississippi State 77
Chris Lee
Nashville, Tenn.
VandySports.com Publisher
The first thing that strikes me is how similar these teams are statistically. From a Vanderbilt standpoint, what would scare me the most would be MSU's defense. The Bulldogs are allowing just 39.2 percent shooting field. That's terrific no matter what conference you're in, and particularly in the SEC.
Stallings said on Tuesday's 104.5 radio segment that what scares him most is MSU's physical ability. I agree with him, and it bears mentioning that this is a road game for the Commodores, and so the officials will be more likely to let things go in Starkville than they would anywhere else.
Vandy won't back down or get intimidated by anyone, so where the physical brand of ball really scares me is the foul situation. Ross Neltner is critical to this team, but is foul-prone, and I worry that he and Ted Skuchas could get caught on the wrong end of the foul battle, and if so, that's trouble for the 'Dores.
Two other things concern me. One, State is able to score points, so they can win at whatever tempo the game is played.
Two, the young Bulldog team seems to be coming together nicely as the season approaches its end. While Vandy will play with all kinds of confidence, so will MSU, as they've lost just once (a one-point loss at 'Bama) in their last five games.
I was going to pick Vandy, but as I sifted through the facts in writing this, there are just too many things that make me feel uneasy. In fact, this is probably the last time I will pick against the 'Dores until (if and when) they're matched up with Florida in the SEC Tournament. Vandy is the better team, but my gut says:
Mississippi State 78, Vanderbilt 72
Jesse Johnson
Murfreesboro, Tenn.
VandySports.com Recruiting Editor/Publisher
This will be a very interesting game for the Commodores.
A few weeks ago, Mississippi State looked like a talented but rather lost team. Starting off at 2-5 in the SEC, the young Bulldogs were tied for last place and had just lost at arch rival Ole Miss. However, led by junior forward Rhodes and sophomore guard Gordon, the Bulldogs have rebounded and are now at 6-6 in the league and pushing for some bubble talk.
With Vanderbilt coming off the high of last Saturday as well as the fact that the 'Dores haven't won in Starkville since the SEC championship year of 1993, one might think that this game situation favors the Bulldogs.
For Vanderbilt, the key to the game is to continue the level of aggressive defense that has vaulted them to their 8-4 league record and gained them a inside spot in the NCAA's. Vanderbilt must contain Rhodes as much as possible and make this game one where either Gordon or Slater has to beat them. Gordon's one of the top scorers in the league, but at times, he forces the issue and is prone to make a number of mistakes.
I think the X-factor for this game is going to be the play of Cage. Cage has had a very solid senior season in both scoring and defense, but lately, his offense has not been there as much as it was earlier in league play. To win on the road, especially in Starkville, I believe all four of Vanderbilt's double-digit scores are going to have to produce their averages or better and Cage is probably the one that could do the most damage; MSU will look to defend Byars and Foster more aggressively than Cage.
Humphrey Coliseum is one of only two arenas in which a Kevin Stallings coached team has not tasted victory. However, I believe that despite the attention the program has received from the victory over Florida, this team is not complacent, and is still driving for a spot in the NCAA tournament as well as a possible No.2 seed in the SEC tournament.
Because of this, I think Vanderbilt will be focused, intense, and ready to play, and this team full of leaders will step up to the plate and put an end to the six game losing streak in Starkville.
Vanderbilt 80, Mississippi State 75
Jake Lowery
Atlanta, Georgia
VandySports.com Guest Writer
Mississippi State is one of the best teams in the SEC, and is probably the most improved over last season. Their accomplishments are disappointing, but the quality of their play has been excellent.
State's player to watch, Jamont Gordon, their predominant offensive force. Gordon plays 80 percent of the team's minutes, taking a huge number of shots while he's on the court, and racking up a very impressive number of assists. On the season, Gordon either assisted or scored over 50% of the team's baskets, which is practically unheard of on a major conference team.
Vanderbilt was able to force him into many turnovers last year, but Gordon has improved his turnover rate dramatically from last season.
Rhodes and Jarvis Varnado are the only true post players who get heavy minutes for MSU, enabling them to avoid some of the matchup problems that Vanderbilt's small lineup can create. Making the matchup even less favorable for the Commodores is the fact that Mississippi State plays better on offense when the tempo is pushed up.
The key to a Commodore win is to get open three point opportunities even against a smaller, quicker team than most that VU has faced thus far, and to limit the offense created by Jamont Gordon. I think this will be a very tough task to accomplish, especially on the road. A Vandy loss here does NOT indicate a let-down after the Florida game – it simply indicates that Mississippi State is a better team than most give them credit for.
It will be a dogfight, but at this point I believe in the Commodores' ability to pull it out
Vanderbilt 74, MSU 73