You're only as good as your last win and only as bad as your last loss in college basketball, and right now everyone around Knoxville is still feeling pretty good after Saturday's 67-56 win over the Florida Gators. This is especially true since the Gators decked Georgia on Tuesday by 22 points. Additional optimism has set in because #20 Mississippi State, winners of 12 of their last 13 heading into conference play, lost 98-88 in regulation to Arkansas on Saturday. That same Arkansas team lost at Ole Miss last night, scoring just 63 points along the way. That same Ole Miss team lost to LSU by 26 last Saturday. (Remember, with no divisional seeding this year in the SEC Tournament, these results all matter to the Vols and the more chaos, the better. If you're looking for a small realistic goal, Tennessee would do well to finish higher than eighth in the league so as to avoid an assumed matchup with assumed top seed Kentucky in the quarterfinals. That's two months of assumption right there, so I'm sure it's solid.)
Speaking of Kentucky, we're thankful there are so many potential storylines with tonight's game in Starkville, because it keeps us from complaining about tonight's 9:00 PM ET tip and noon Saturday turnaround with the Wildcats in Knoxville.
Other than a stunner against Akron in the second game of the season, the only team to beat Mississippi State before Saturday was #7 Baylor by a deuce. The Bulldogs beat Texas A&M by nine, Arizona by ten, and West Virginia by a baker's dozen. This team can certainly play. But here's a fun fact: the Vols have won the last three meetings in Starkville. The last three meetings overall have been memorable, including last year's one point win for the Bulldogs in Knoxville, the final game of the 2010 regular season which saw Tennessee jump to a 17-0 lead en route to ruining MSU's senior day 75-59, and the 2009 SEC Tournament finals which saw an insane final minute with the Bulldogs prevailing.
It's not just Kentucky on Saturday, but the rest of January that continues to loom. For Tennessee to keep moving in the right direction off the Florida win, the Vols need another strong effort tonight. After the jump, we break down the matchup and take a look at key factors on both sides...
So, let's start with what happened in Fayetteville. Mississippi State shot 51.9% from the floor, 45% from three, and 25 of 31 (80.6%) at the line. And yet, they lost by allowing Arkansas to shoot 56.5% from the floor, 40% from the arc, and 22 of 28 (78.6%) at the line. The Razorbacks were very impressive with their ball distribution, 35 made field goals with 22 assists. And the most noticeable difference: Arkansas turned it over nine times, MSU eighteen.
It was the Arkansas backcourt that really abused MSU's defense: guards Julysses Nobles, Mardracus Wade, and B.J. Young had 60 combined points on 22 of 30 shooting, including all six of the Razorback treys. This makes sense with Mississippi State's size inside, where the Bulldogs can go with 6'9" Wendell Lewis, 6'10" Renardo Sidney, and 6'11" Arnett Moultrie. Moultrie averages an incredibly impressive 16.2 points and 11.3 rebounds; only he and Anthony Davis, who we'll see Saturday, average a double-double among SEC players.
Tennessee started Josh Richardson and Renaldo Woolridge against Florida, which was a great move in every way. Both will apparently start again against Mississippi State. But the Gators were guard heavy, which meant the Vols could get away with less of an inside presence. MSU is a very different animal with all that size on the floor at the same time, and it'll be interesting to see how Cuonzo Martin chooses to attack. On the defensive end, UT's guards will have to deal with Dee Bost, the latest member of the All-"Hasn't that guy exhausted his eligibility?" Team.
This brings us to Jarnell Stokes, who probably will be fully cleared, probably won't play, but definitely will be talked about. The smart money appears to be on next Wednesday's game at Georgia for his debut; though he's been practicing with the team already, I'm just not sure anyone could be ready for action this soon, and trotting him out against Kentucky less than 40 hours later may not be a wise move either.
Tennessee looked great without him against Florida, and this is an even bigger test for the Vol bigs. Jeronne Maymon has been solid all year, but it was Kenny Hall who truly made the difference in the Florida game. Tonight is a big boy test for him on both ends of the floor, and with Stokes getting ready to see action sooner or later, all the Vol post players have to know minutes are on the line. Will we see another strong showing from Hall? Because we might need it.
Both the Vols and Bulldogs are more efficient than we're probably giving them credit for: both average 1.1 points per possession, tied for 41st nationally and third in the SEC. Tennessee still ranks near the bottom of the SEC in most defensive statistical categories, in part because of the double overtime fun in Maui, but what we saw against Florida on Saturday was a superior defensive effort. All of these previews from this point will come with this disclaimer: if Tennessee brings that level of defensive intensity, the Vols will have a chance to win.
We're doubling up tonight: #6 Lady Vols at #9 Kentucky at 7:00 PM, Vols at #20 Mississippi State at 9:00. Let's win.