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Hoops Preview: Mississippi State is flawed, but better than you think

Despite low expectations, Ben Howland has Mississippi State playing hard for a spot in the middle of the SEC.

NCAA Basketball: North Texas at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Since his arrival in 2016, Ben Howland hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire at Mississippi State. But he sure does have Missouri’s number.

The Bulldogs only have one NCAA Tournament appearance in Howland’s five years — a first-round exit in 2019 — but he has set a moderately high floor. They’ve been at worst a borderline Top 50 KenPom team for each of the past three seasons and have finished in the top six of the conference each of the past two seasons. Not to mention in that time, Howland’s teams are 1-5 against Missouri, with the one loss coming in a controversial overtime loss in 2017 (ah, Jordan Geist; I miss how you sell charges.)

The Bulldogs have taken a small step back in 2021, but they’re still a tough out. They managed just 5-3 in the non-conference slate — including a loss to Liberty at an MTE — but started conference play by knocking off Georgia in Athens. The Bulldogs then nearly became the latest team to continue Kentucky’s slide into oblivion, but they ran into the freight train known as Dontaie Allen.

Having lost three major contributors to graduation or the NBA, Howland is resetting with a number of familiar role players and the regular combination of transfers and freshman. The Bulldogs were picked to finish at 12 in the SEC standings but, like Missouri, have aspirations on a higher goal. While they likely won’t get back to the Dance in 2021, you’re sure to see them play spoiler at some point later in the conference schedule. Hopefully, it’s not against Missouri.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (7-1) Mississippi State (6-4)
Position Missouri (7-1) Mississippi State (6-4)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Iverson Molinar (So., 6'3", 190)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) DJ Stewart (So., 6'6", 205)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Jalen Johnson (Sr., 6'6, 210)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Tolu Smith (So., 6'10", 245)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Abdul Ado (Sr., 6'11", 255)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

The Bulldogs run a rotation heavy on sophomores and freshman, but they do have two seniors contributing heavily. Abdul Ado is once again holding down the paint with excellent rebounding and block numbers. He’s still fouling quite a bit, but is also getting to the foul line at a decent clip. One-time SLU Billiken Jalen Johnson is also part of the Bulldogs starting five, where he operates as a knockdown 3-and-D specialist.

It’s the sophomores, as I just said, that make up the bulk of the roster. The top three players in possession percentage are second-year guys, starting with DJ Stewart and Iverson Molinar. These are the two players the Bulldogs will run a lot of offense through, and both offer versatile skillsets. They’re both excellent three-point shooters — Stewart at 44.4 percent and Molinar at 50 — though both prefer going to the rim, where they’re not nearly as efficient and don’t draw a ton of contact. Molinar is the primary creator (for himself and others) and should offer a challenge for Xavier Pinson on defense.

Sophomore Western Kentucky transfer Tolu Smith has endeared himself to Howland quite well in the early part of the season, emerging as the team’s best rebounder and a foul magnet down low. At 6’10”, he’s not an elite offensive player, but he’ll get plenty of looks, especially at the free throw line. Alabama transfer Javian Davis is just one inch shorter and cut from almost the exact same mold, though he’s more susceptible to foul trouble. Continuing the Howland habit of stacking the front court with monsters is Quinten Post, a sophomore who plays sparingly, but plays (and rebounds) efficiently when called on.

Closing out the rotation is a pair of freshman, including four-star Deivon Smith. Smith is primarily used a defensive substitute and struggles on the offensive end, but he rebounds well for a smaller guard. Cameron Matthews has also seen some run at the combo forward position, where he shoots sparingly. Both of the 2020 class members have succeeded mostly on defense, where they’re both capable of creating turnovers.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Mississippi State Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 108 (65) 16.5 (123) 49.4 (184) 20.5 (219) 31.3 (90) 46.3 (6) 27.2 (308) 54.8 (53) 72.5 (107) 11.4 (288) 9.5 (210)
Mississippi State 97.9 (104) 17.9 (308) 47.5 (98) 19.1 (182) 26.3 (112) 25.8 (42) 35.9 (251) 42.7 (31) 71.3 (210) 14.2 (18) 8.8 (174)
NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Can Missouri actually hit some 3’s?

Yikes, right? Maybe not exactly what you wanted to read as a key point of Missouri’s offense.

Well, if the Tigers are ever going to break out of their jump shooting funk, Starkville will be the place. The Bulldogs have one of the worst three-point defenses in the country, allowing teams to shoot above 38 percent from deep. They don’t, however, struggle as much around the rim, ranking near the top of the SEC in two-point defense and blocked shots. We’ve seen Missouri struggle with teams who can prevent them from scoring at the rim, and the pairing of Abdul Ado and Tolu Smith will make things difficult inside. If the Tigers can can just a few open looks, they’ll prevent the Bulldogs from totally packing the paint and making this game borderline unwatchable.

When Mississippi State has the ball...

Mississippi State Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Mississippi State 108.6 (58) 18.1 (283) 50.8 (133) 19.8 (183) 39.3 (7) 36.2 (116) 37.9 (40) 48.2 (204) 60.4 (324) 7.1 (88) 7.5 (63)
Missouri 90.9 (19) 16.8 (142) 42.9 (14) 16.3 (296) 28 (176) 34.6 (197) 26.2 (20) 44.9 (54) 67.5 (99) 5.7 (281) 7 (281)
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Force the Bulldogs to beat you from deep

This strategy may seem counter-intuitive seeing as Mississippi State shoots the three rather well. They’ve got three players who are hitting at 40 percent or better. Yet despite this strength, Ben Howland’s team ranks 309th in the country in three-point shots to field goals attempted. They would much rather take the ball to the paint and create high-efficiency looks or let their tall front line create second chances. They’re excellent at the latter. The former? Not so much.

Missouri has been a strong two-point defense this season, but are elite around the perimeter. If the Tigers force the Bulldogs to take more threes than they’re comfortable with, they’ll be playing to their own strengths more so than Mississippi State’s.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 69, Mississippi State 67 | Don’t let preseason projections about the Bulldogs fool you, because this is going to be a tough game. As Matt and Sam pointed out on Dive Cuts this week, Ben Howland has had the scout on Missouri since he came into the SEC, only losing once. This isn’t his most talented squad, but they play hard and wrestle the pace to where they want it. Fortunately for Missouri, some of their weaknesses play right into the Tigers’ hands — specifically, a porous three-point defense that could spark Missouri’s shooters. If the Tigers avoid a turnover-happy game and knock down even a small amount of their threes, they should be able to escape Humphrey Coliseum with a second consecutive road win.