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1. Sophomore studs
The offensive attack for Mississippi State is centered around their two star sophomore guards, Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart Jr, who combine for nearly 33 points per game this year. Molinar starts at the point, standing at 6’3″ and 190 pounds. He is second on the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game and assists at 2.5 per game. He also grabs 4 rebounds and swipes one steal per contest. Molinar is very effective on the offensive end, as he can score from anywhere on the floor and doesn’t typically force the issue. He’s shooting 81% from the free throw line, almost 47% from the field, and has made 44.6% of his three point attempts.
Rounding out the backcourt is two-guard, D.J. Stewart Jr, who measures at 6’6″ and 205 pounds. First on the team in scoring, Stewart Jr averages 16.5 points, to go along with 3.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists on the year. He does have an issue with giving the ball up too often, with just under 3 turnovers per game so far this season. Stewart Jr shoots 35% from three, as well as, 79.6% on his free throw attempts. The redshirt sophomore can get a little trigger happy, taking more than 14 shots per game, but Kentucky will need to make sure they force contested shots to avoid easy and early scores from Stewart Jr. The two combined for 36 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, and 3 steals in the first match up against Kentucky to start SEC play.
2. Big men in the middle
While Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart Jr take care of the bulk of the scoring in the backcourt for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs do start two solid bigs in the frontcourt as well. The two starting post players for Ben Howland’s squad are 6’10” – 245lb Tolu Smith and 6’11” – 255lb Abdul Ado. A very strong offensive rebounding team, Mississippi State gets nearly six offensive rebounds per game from their two starting bigs. The Bulldogs also bring in more size off the bench, in the form of 6’7″ Cameron Matthews, 6’9″ Javian Davis, and 7’0″ Quenton Post.
Tolu Smith is the third leg to the offensive attack for Mississippi State, as he scores 12.7 points per game so far this year. He leads the SEC in rebounding at 8.6, with 3.4 of those coming on the offensive end, and blocks just under one shot per game. Efficient from the field at over 57.7%, but doesn’t have a big perimeter game. Abdul Ado isn’t as big of an offensive threat as Smith, but the senior is strong on both the glass and on the defensive end. He averages 5.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2 blocks in under 28 minutes per game. The two bigs had a combined 12 points, 17 rebounds, 7 blocks, and 3 steals against Kentucky earlier this season.
3. Free throws aren’t free points
There’s been a lot of complaining this season about Kentucky’s inability to shoot at an effective rate, and rightfully so. However, the fans in Starkville may be echoing the same sentiment, and about the free throw line specifically. The Bulldogs are a pretty solid three-point shooting team, hitting 34.9% on the season, which ranked fourth in the conference. Take away the defender and move that shot to the charity stripe, and it is a different story completely for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs hit just 64.1% of their free throws, which ranks 328th out of 347 teams in the country.
Mississippi State has six players shooting less than 67% from the free throw line, five of those are shooting less than 58%, and three of those four are shooting under 40%. At 19.2 attempts per game, the Bulldogs rank 121st in the country, but their 12.3 makes are way down on the list, at 214th in the country. Against Kentucky back at the beginning of January, the Bulldogs hit 16 of their 23 attempted free throws, but one player made half of the team’s makes.
4. Since we last met
Kentucky opened SEC play against Mississippi State back on January 2nd and a lot has happened for both teams since then. The Cats have gone 7-9 since that win in Starkville on their way to an 8-seed in the SEC Tournament, the worst of the Calipari era in Lexington. Mississippi State, on the other hand, had played one SEC game before hosting Kentucky, getting a win over Georgia at the end of December. Since that game against Kentucky on January 2nd, the Bulldogs also went 7-9, finishing 9th in the SEC.
After dropping the double overtime game to Kentucky, Mississippi State beat #13 Missouri and then Vandy in back to back games, before a one-point loss to Texas A&M and then a win at home against Florida. Struggles followed that win over the Gators, as the Bulldogs lost six of their next eight games. Four times in that span, Ben Howland’s squad scored 53 or less points in what was a major offensive dip. A postponed game against Auburn gave Mississippi State a chance to gather themselves, as they then knocked off Ole Miss and South Carolina consecutively. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t keep the good times rolling, losing two of their last three games heading into SEC Tournament play.
5. Continuing the streak
For Mississippi State, the Bulldogs have lost 15 straight games against Kentucky, which is every single game of the Coach Cal era in Lexington. The overall series sits at 92-18 in favor of the Wildcats, but the Bulldogs have had no luck in recent years of toppling the Cats. After going to overtime in both of first two match ups against Coach Cal, Mississippi State has struggled to get back to that point, as an average margin of victory sits at 12 points over the 14 games before this season’s match up. Obviously the first match up of this season went to double overtime and the Cats won by just 5.
Kentucky currently sits at a 3.5 favorite for today’s game. This is the first time in the Coach Cal era that Kentucky has had to play on Thursday in the SEC Tournament, missing out on the double-bye. Ben Howland is just 3-4 in the SEC Tournament in his time as the head coach at Mississippi State, while John Calipari is 23-4 in the SEC Tournament.
Go Cats. Beat Dogs.