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Mizzou Hoops Preview: Mississippi State (Pt. 1 and 2)

Ben Howland’s Bulldogs are desperate to work themselves into the NCAA conversation, and they’ll need a weekend sweep to make it happen.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

When’s the last time you got a double-header preview on Rock M Nation? It hasn’t been since I’ve written them, I can tell you that!

This weekend will see Missouri traverse a strange path, both to and from Starkville, MS, with the Mississippi State Bulldogs in tow. Will the two teams make a stop at Silver Dollar City on the way home? You may as well make the most of the time.

Due to COVID-19 complications, the SEC gave the Missouri and State a home-and-home split this weekend, creating a fascinating opportunity for both teams. The Bulldogs, who slip further from the bubble with every compiled loss, need to start banking wins. What better way to do so than to face one of the SEC’s worst teams twice in a row? The Tigers, who may sit on the precipice of regime change if the season doesn’t end well, need to do much of the same. What better way to do so than to face one of the SEC’s middling teams twice in a row?

Unfortunately for Ben Howland’s team, they’ve fallen victim to an SEC upper class that has separated itself in conference play. The Bulldogs are a borderline top 40 KenPom team that, due to a rough-and-tumble conference slate, currently sit 9th in the standings sandwiched between two decidedly non-tournament teams in South Carolina and Vanderbilt. It’s an unenviable position for a team with a top 25ish offense and preseason hopes of Howland’s second NCAAT bid.

So as the two squads get ready for their there-and-back-again journeys, there seems to be an air of desperation in both Columbia and Starkville, albeit for two entirely different reasons. This arguably favors Missouri, which could afford a split that would likely damn the Bulldogs to be on the outside looking in come March.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (10-15) Mississippi State (14-11)
Position Missouri (10-15) Mississippi State (14-11)
PG Jarron Coleman (Jr., 6'5", 210) Iverson Molinar (Jr., 6'3", 190)
CG Javon Pickett (Sr., 6'5", 215) Cam Carter (Fr., 6'3", 185)
WING DaJuan Gordon (Jr., 6'3", 190) DJ Jeffries (Jr., 6'7", 215)
PF Kobe Brown (Jr., 6'8", 250) Garrison Brooks (Sr., 6'9", 230)
POST Trevon Brazile (Fr., 6'9", 215) Tolu Smith (Jr., 6'11", 245)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Players to Watch

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The talent level in Starkville has taken a decided upturn under Ben Howland, and it shows at the top of the roster. Junior Iverson Molinar is a likely NBA Draft pick this spring, boasting elite guard skills and a decent enough jumper (which has been cold this year) to become a good reserve in the league. He’s bolstered in the back court by sophomore Shakeel Moore, can focus on a more three-and-D role while Molinar controls the ball. Garrison Brooks is the team’s best front court option, a tenacious rebounder and strong rim protector who can stretch the floor enough to be a massive mismatch issue for opposing defenses. DJ Jeffries isn’t quite as dependable of a scorer on the wing, but he’s a defensive menace with a lot of size. Cameron Matthews only gets a touch under 50 percent of the available minutes because of his turnover issues and lack of offensive punch, but he’s arguably even a better defender at the combo forward position, averaging almost five steals per 40 minutes and the the second highest block rate on the team.

Role Players

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Howland relies heavily on his top four players, but his bench is stacked with effective size. Tolu Smith gets plenty of run in the post, and he gives Howland a lot of strength on the offensive glass. Javian Davis also brings a presence on that end of the boards, but he’s not nearly the scorer that Smith has proven to be. Both have issues with fouls that can be exploited. Andersson Garcia follows in the Davis mold — light scoring, heavy defense — except he’s much more adept at cleaning the defensive boards. Sophomore Derek Fountain also get some scant minutes as a defensive specialist. The only player in this group who measures below 6’9”, 220 is Garcia, who plays at a cool 6’7”, 210.

The back court depth is where things get tricky for Howland. Cam Carter picked up 28 minutes against Alabama while Rocket Watts was sidelined, but Carter hasn’t seen a ton of time this season. He’s still a freshman figuring his way, but there’s promise there — his assist rate sits at 28.2 percent against a 17.7 turnover rate, and his jump shot has been falling (37.5 percent from deep.) Watts, who was hot on Missouri’s radar for the longest time in high school, only gets reserve minutes and hasn’t done much with them. He’s too turnover prone and not prolific enough of a shooter to leap Carter in the depth chart. Whether he plays or not this weekend may not make a huge difference in Howland’s pans.

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 104.7 (136) 18 (246) 47.5 (276) 21.3 (323) 31.7 (67) 29 (219) 28.6 (345) 49.7 (177) 72.3 (149) 9.3 (214) 10.4 (287)
Mississippi State 97.9 (76) 17.6 (192) 50.3 (196) 19.1 (143) 25.1 (58) 27.9 (119) 32.7 (137) 51.3 (248) 72.7 (241) 11.5 (71) 11.6 (40)
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Make your jumpers

Mississippi State’s defense isn’t quite as solid as you’d expect from a Ben Howland team, but they match up fairly well against the Tigers — they force a lot of steals and control the defensive glass fairly well. They don’t, however, prevent their opponents from getting quality looks, and Missouri needs to take advantage. The Tigers are shooting the ball much better in conference play, and they’ll need to take advantage of their open looks if the glass is going to be more of a battle than they’re used to.

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 112.5 (29) 18.1 (261) 51.2 (124) 19.1 (216) 34.1 (30) 36.9 (32) 31.8 (272) 52.8 (70) 72.6 (138) 8.6 (139) 10.3 (282)
Missouri 102.1 (159) 17.6 (189) 51.2 (235) 18.4 (192) 30.9 (292) 34.4 (279) 36 (289) 49.5 (175) 68.7 (53) 11.7 (64) 9.8 (131)
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Create some havoc and manage the boards

The Bulldogs sport an offense that sits just outside the top 25 nationally, a ground-and-pound style attack focused on applying rim pressure and cleaning up misses at a high rate. If that sounds familiar, you may also be able to guess where the Bulldogs’ weaknesses lie. They’re a pretty poor ball control team and don’t shoot from the outside particularly well. Missouri doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, but it would behoove them to at least apply heavy ball pressure and do everything in their power to manage players like Brooks, Matthews and Smith on the glass.

KenPom predicts...

Mississippi State 74, Missouri 63 (Game 1)

Mississippi State 70, Missouri 66 (Game 2) | Sam and Matt pointed this out on Dive Cuts, and it bears repeating — beating a Power Five team two times in back-to-back games is hard, no matter how how bad the lesser team is. Missouri may be coming off a dud against Arkansas, but they’ve been able to pick off some good opponents at home, and will have the benefit of playing the Bulldogs twice in three days. A split doesn’t feel out of reach.

Still, this isn’t exactly a favorable match up for the Tigers. The Bulldogs have the size to neutralize Missouri and the rebounding to stifle Missouri’s offense in one-and-done situations. If Mizzou can’t find a way to shoot the ball better than it did on Wednesday, it’ll be a long weekend for Tiger fans.