Missouri is back home and they're taking on co-cellar dweller Mississippi State. State was also not invited to the Big 12/SEC Challenge party, so they get to come to Mizzou Arena, which is essentially the kid's table of this weekend's cross conference throwdown.
Get to know the Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State was bad in 2015, Mizzou bad and as a result they gave the boot to Rick Ray after three years and a 37-60 record overall and 13-41 in conference. As bad as the Bulldogs were, they did beat Mizzou twice last year. Enter Ben Howland, the coach the administration at Mizzou and others deemed too hot to handle and his baggage. Howland came in and won the offseason, signing legacy freshman star Malik Newman and equally highly touted Quindary Weatherspoon, all that was needed was to play the games.
Well, the season did not start well for the Bulldogs. Like Mizzou last year they suffered some very difficult losses to teams like UMKC and Southern while not really beating anyone of note. During the nonconference season they had a close loss to suddenly hot Texas Tech but were blown out by Miami and Florida State, two top 50 KenPom teams in their own right.
With the begging of conference play however, State has shown some life, their record would not indicate that but they've shown out well with their most lopsided loss being a 14 point beating at Arkansas, where wins are always difficult to come by. In that time they lost to A&M by one, Kentucky by six, and Florida by three, all top teams in the conference. But it's not all losses, State did pull out a victory over in state rival Ole Miss (though the Rebels were sans Stefan Moody) at home and now sit tied with Mizzou for last in the SEC
BEST WIN(S): Ole Miss (105) 83-77
WORST LOSS: UMKC (261) 72-67, Southern (198) 76-72
And now time for a chat...
Q&A With For Whom the Cowbell Tolls
Montana of For Whom the Cowbell Tolls, and frequent Power Rankings contributor has offered up some of his time to give us the rundown of what's happening with State and if he sees a better tomorrow than today.
RockMNation: How would you rate year one of the Howland Era to date?
Montana: I think State fans put a lot of pressure on Howland in year one and expected immediate results but that was never going to be the case. He's a phenomenal coach and he adapts his defensive and offensive scheme quite well to the opponent but there have been several inexplicable losses so far. As a coach and recruiter for Mississippi State, Howland is still an A+ hire. This season has featured multiple highs and lows, most recently with a win over Ole Miss, but the blowout losses to Miami and Florida State combined with the losses to UMKC and Southern diminish the first year "legacy". Let's see a Mississippi State team with Howland talent then I can accurately judge. C- for the year so far.
RMN: Midway through the conference season, how would you rate the progress being made by freshmen Malik Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon?
Montana: Look at the Ole Miss game to see how good Malik Newman can be. 25 points and 7 three-pointers? The kid is outstanding on the court and has become more comfortable as the season has progressed. If the Bulldogs are lucky enough to see him stick around for a few years, this is the type of player that can lead MSU back to SEC title contention. Weatherspoon is very similar to Newman in that he has become more comfortable on the court. He is a consistent scorer, putting up double digits in the last four contests. The future is bright in Starkville and it is easy to see why.
RMN: What's it going to take in the second half of SEC play for the Bulldogs to make a move in the positive direction?
Montana: Consistency and luck. The Bulldogs have the talent to win a couple of their remaining games but the schedule is daunting. LSU, Vanderbilt, Alabama, A&M, and South Carolina will all be favorites against MSU and rightfully so. The roster is not dramatically different from last year's disaster and while the Freshmen are a great improvement, you can not consistently count on Freshmen to win you games unless you're Kentucky. The team has steadily improved the field goal percentage as the season has progressed and that has to continue for the Bulldogs to have any shot at a winning season.
RMN: Outside of Ware and Sword, who should Mizzou fans have their eyes on that could be a problem for the Tigers?
Montana: The obvious answers are Newman and Weatherspoon but I'm going to go with a more seasoned veteran in I.J Ready. He may not consistently produce but his ability to explode on any given night gives the Bulldogs an obvious extra weapon. His 20 point performances against Florida and South Carolina kept the Bulldogs in those games but combine his ability with a hot scoring night from Sword or the Freshmen and the Bulldogs can beat anybody in the SEC. Again, it comes down to consistency and playing as a team.
RMN: How do you expect tomorrow's game to play out and what's your predicted final score?
Montana: If Mississippi State is bad then Missouri is awful. It is surprising though because outside of the Arkansas debacle, there are no real "terrible" losses on the Missouri resume just lots of losses to average or good teams. I don't think you can qualify Missouri as better than MSU based on quality of losses because the matter of the fact is we aren't even halfway through conference play and both teams have at least eleven losses. The game will be close and I'm tempted to give it to Mizzou, just because it is a home game for the Tigers, but I think this will be an ugly 64-60 win for Mississippi State.
Thanks to Montana for providing answers to our questions, he's a great follow on Twitter and For Whom the Cowbell Tolls is a great site for all things Mississippi State, go ahead and give it a look see prior to game time.
While the season has not gone in the direction State fans would like to have seen, they do do some things very well, things that should cause concern for Mizzou fans. Right from the top, State shoots the ball very well from inside the arc, sitting at 22nd in the country. While this isn't backed up from beyond the arc, where they don't shoot particularly well, they probably won't need to against our Tigers. They do shoot well from the line, but they really don't ever get there, so there's not much of a worry there as well. That's pretty much what State does really well, they don't turn you over very often but they don't turn the ball over all that much themselves, they are a pretty average team with two glaring weaknesses, they do not rebound defensively pretty much at all, and they don't defend your shot all that well either.
State looks a lot like a team trying to find itself and fix a lot of problems that existed before Howland took over. Enter Newman and Weatherspoon. Coming into the year, many were projecting State to have a breakout year, simply on the backs of these two freshman, similar to what was expected of Ben Simmons at LSU. Unfortunately, that has not happened for either of the two. Both players have picked their games up tremendously and have started to look like the freshman sensations they were expected to be. In their past few games, both are getting into double figures in scoring, while Weatherspoon has really picked his game up on the boards. Complementing the kids are seniors Craig Sword and Gavin Ware. Both will get to the basket and be counted on to do the dirty work on the glass, when State does get to the glass. These four play the bulk of State's minutes and if Mizzou wants to get a win they're going to have to disrupt their flow. Running the show for State is IJ Ready, as Montana singled out above. Ready is capable of going off in big scoring binges, but he's more likely to facilitate the game for the four mentioned above.
All that said, let's take a look at the three keys to a Mizzou victory:
1) Hit the Glass Hard
State does not rebound the ball very well, so when the Tigers have an opportunity to get a loose ball or coral a rebound, they're going to have to do that. State will give you chances, so be sure to take advantage of them.
2) Free Throws
State is going to put you on the line and Mizzou has shown quite the acumen for getting to the line this season, keep it up. Crash the interior with Walton, Clark and Puryear and make State beat you cleanly, the points are there for the taking.
3) Come out Fast
We've seen it all season, Mizzou starts off meekly and puts themselves in a big hole, this game should give them an opportunity to show some backbone and take the game to State and not the other way around. Assert your will on the game and their freshman stars may get rattled.
All in all, this is a winnable game for Mizzou, it's at home, school is in full swing, there's no football to distract anyone and there will be no weather to stop people from showing up.
Can they win though?
KenPom has this as a close 72 - 71 win for State though he does give the Tigers a 45% chance at a win, after Wednesday night's debacle I'm not feeling very confident, couple that with the fact that State has played better than Mizzou has this conference season and I see it State 68 - Mizzou 62.