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Tennessee vs Mississippi State Preview - In Search of the Easy Way

Off the bubble and riding high after the win at Vanderbilt, the Vols now face a golden opportunity.  Not only can Tennessee continue to string their best basketball together when it matters most at the end of the year, but the Vols can really help themselves in both the SEC and NCAA Tournament by simply winning the games they're supposed to win.  With Mississippi State (14-13), South Carolina (14-12), and Kentucky (1-6 on the road in the SEC) left on the schedule, the Vols should definitely win the first two, and we'll hear no excuses about losing the third one.

The Kentucky game will be the most important because of the crowded field behind Florida in the SEC East.  I believe there are no great teams in the SEC this year, but there are five good ones in the East (with Alabama playing good basketball right now).  The Gators have clinched the division because they refuse to lose any close games, but it's gridlock after that:  Vanderbilt is 8-5, and Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee are all 7-6.

We discussed this briefly on our site yesterday, but here's another look at the remaining games for these four teams:

  • Georgia:  vs Carolina, vs LSU, at Alabama
  • Kentucky:  vs Florida, vs Vandy, at Tennessee
  • Tennessee:  vs MSU, at Carolina, vs Kentucky
  • Vanderbilt:  at LSU, at Kentucky, vs Florida

If Vegas is right, we'll have a four-way tie at 9-6 as each team heads into its final game.  The stakes in this race:  the team that comes in second gets a first round bye in the SEC Tournament.  The team that finishes fifth gets to play Florida on Friday.  Remind me again why we didn't re-seed the tournament?

The tiebreakers for the SEC Tournament (PDF) start with head-to-head (which the Vols have on Vandy), then go to division record.  The Vols are currently 4-4 against the East; the Dores are also 4-4, with Kentucky at 4-3 and the gauntlet left to play.  Georgia is just 3-6 against the East.  If Tennessee wins out, they'll be in excellent shape in the tiebreakers; the only team that could beat us there would be Kentucky, if they beat Florida and Vandy - the third tiebreaker is record against the top team in the division.  So cheer for Florida today.

Beating Mississippi State wouldn't just help the Vols in the SEC Tournament - the Vols still have a chance to move north in the NCAA bracket.

We should point out that the Vols aren't a lock at this point, so beating Mississippi State would first and foremost help get them in.  But with a strong finish, the Vols could move away from the 7-10 seed group they currently find themselves in.  In The Bracket Matrix, 62 of the 68 current projections put the Vols somewhere in that range.

What you usually want to avoid at all costs is an 8 or a 9, because not only are you essentially playing a toss up game in round one, you're playing one of the four best teams in college basketball in round two.  The same theme we find in the SEC permeates all of college basketball this year - no great teams, but a lot of good ones - and should make for another great tournament like last year. 

Still, even if there are no truly great teams, nobody wants to play a team like Texas right away.  However, when you look at the top of the projected brackets right now, you'll see a lot of familiar faces:  Ohio State, Pittsburgh, San Diego State, Kansas, and Purdue are all teams the Vols have seen this year or last.  So there's really not a team in this field I'd absolutely like to avoid - I just assume we're going to play well against good teams these days - but if Tennessee can move north from the 7-10 group, I'm okay with postponing those meetings until the Sweet 16.

On our podcast Wednesday, SB Nation bracketologist Chris Dobbertean said he believed the Vols could go as high as a 5 seed were they to win out and then win the SEC Tournament.  But since there's no logical reason to expect anything good to happen to us in the deadly combination of the SEC Tournament and the Georgia Dome, let's just focus on winning out; if the Vols can get these next three and then just put up a good showing in Atlanta, a 6 seed is not at all out of the question...and we've already seen what this program can do from there.  The Vols already have seven wins against the RPI Top 50, and will have a chance to get eight against Kentucky - outside the Big East, only Ohio State and Florida have more.  If we can get on a roll and put some of the inconsistencies and bad memories behind us, there is a lot the selection committee will like about the Vols on paper.

So, first thing's first:  the business at hand with Mississippi State.

If the Vols are the most interesting story in the league this year, the Bulldogs might be second:  one of the preseason favorites in the SEC West, they lost to Florida Atlantic and ETSU in the non-conference, then went to the Bahamas and lost to Virginia Tech by 31.  It got no better in Hawaii:  26 point loss to Washington State and an 11 point loss to Hawaii, with teammate-on-teammate violence in between.

The games have been closer, but the losses have continued to pile up in conference play.  Other than a home win against Florida on January 29, State has done nothing of note.  Their inconsistencies are like UT's, only their good nights involve simply playing teams close.  They gave Kentucky a run for their money in Rupp Arena two weeks ago...but that was three days after they lost at Auburn.  They thumped Ole Miss in Starkville last Saturday, but responded by losing at home to LSU.  That's right:  they've lost to both Auburn and LSU.

When you look at their roster, you see what looks like a good team with names you recognize:  Ravern Johnson, Dee Bost, Kodi Augustus, plus the always entertaining Renardo Sidney.  Sidney is coming off his two best games, with a 22-12 against Ole Miss and a 24-8 against LSU.  Bost averages 16.4 points and 5.7 assists per game, while Johnson leads the team in scoring with 17.0 per night.

But yikes, their defense.

State gives up 69.8 points per game, worst in the SEC.  They're particularly bad at forcing turnovers, creating just 11.4 per game, also worst in the league; they force a turnover on only 16.6% of possessions, 328th out of 345 nationally.  They've been lit up for 80+ in seven of their losses, including 85 for Kentucky and a humiliating 84 for LSU this week.  It suggests what you already believe about this team:  lack of focus, lack of discipline.  Mississippi State will not help themselves - no reason for the Vols to do it for them.

Tennessee should also own the glass here, something we're already good at - State is 285th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.  This is one of those games you sit down and look at, and you think should not be close.  There's usually no telling with us, but State is a team with nothing to play for until they get to Atlanta, and their lack of discipline has been far more important than their talent this year.

So, I'd like to see Tennessee win.  I'd also like to see Cameron Tatum do something good - Josh Bone played the crunch time minutes at Vanderbilt, and Bone is without question the better defender.  A good question to ask here is what sort of game do the Vols want to play in March?  How many teams are we going to beat in the tournament scoring the 60 points we put up against Vanderbilt?  If that's what we think UT's best basketball looks like - great halfcourt defense, rebounding, and shortened possessions (the "We go as far as Scotty takes us" plan), then Bone's your guy and let's get him some more minutes to see if he can create some offense.  But Tatum's ceiling will always be higher, and Tennessee will always be better when he's knocking down threes. 

Since hitting 2 of 5 against South Carolina, Tatum is 1 for 8.  We all think he's a good shooter, but for the year he's now down to an absurd 29.1% from the arc.  Only Trae Golden shoots a lower percentage among non-post players.  If Tatum is going to rediscover his form, we'd love to know about now, and go into March with him still trying to find his stroke.

You'll see more than 60 points today, though I'm sure the Vols would still rather beat MSU with patience than acceleration.  Two other interesting rotation questions to keep an eye on:  is Trae Golden now fully back as the number two point guard, or will Skylar McBee get back in the mix?  And how often will we see the Tobias Harris & Jeronne Maymon combination in the post (at the expense of John Fields' minutes)?

It's rare we get to say this, but the Vols are the more consistent team on the floor today.  State doesn't play nearly enough defense to be able to win in Knoxville - we need to make sure and take advantage of the opportunities they give us, and this can be a step forward for the team, and for several individual players like Tatum.  Move forward as a team, move up in the bracket.       

It's a tremendous day for college basketball - here's what we'll be watching, and feel free to use this as a comment thread for the day pre-Vols:

  • 20 Syracuse at 11 Georgetown - 12:00 PM - CBS
  • 18 Vanderbilt at LSU - 1:30 PM - SEC Network
  • 7 BYU at 4 San Diego State - 2:00 PM - CBS
  • 25 St. John's at 14 Villanova - 2:00 PM - ESPN
  • 13 Florida at 22 Kentucky - 4:00 PM - CBS
  • Alabama at Ole Miss - 4:00 PM - SEC Network
  • Mississippi State at Tennessee - 6:00 PM - ESPN