State men begin critical stretch with road game at Vanderbilt

MSU head coach Ben Howland talks with his staff during a timeout.
By: 
JOEL COLEMAN
Staff Writer

It’s perhaps the most important week of men’s basketball in a long time at Mississippi State.

Fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives, the Bulldogs face a pair of critical games over the course of the next four days beginning with Wednesday night’s 6 p.m. game at Vanderbilt.

MSU (18-7, 6-6) has a fighting chance for its first trip to the big dance since 2009. The Bulldogs sit on the tournament bubble, with every game from here on out vital to their postseason fate.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Mississippi State as one of his Next Four Out in his most recent Bracketology, meaning MSU is predicted as one of eight teams just outside the tournament as things currently stand. To claw their way into the field, the Bulldogs must keep earning wins with Wednesday night’s tilt being a potential tipping point.

“We know how important every single game is,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said last week.

State can ill afford a loss at Vanderbilt (9-16, 3-9) if the Bulldogs want to stay solidly in the NCAA Tournament discussion. As of late Tuesday, the Commodores had an RPI of 120 according to ESPN, so a victory for Vanderbilt tonight would potentially start to sour all the momentum MSU has built lately while winning four of its last five games and boosting its own RPI up to 54 according to ESPN.

Mississippi State can at least enter tonight’s game with confidence after already having beaten Vanderbilt once this season. The Bulldogs defeated the Commodores 80-62 in Starkville back on Jan. 16.

“We’ve both improved from that point,” Howland said. “That was the first game (Vanderbilt junior guard Matthew) Fisher-Davis didn’t play in (after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury). They have more stability now in terms of how they’re going to rotate, bring guys in and out of the game. They’re definitely better.”

Vanderbilt is just 3-4 over its last seven games, but the Commodores have played a bit better than that record indicates. Vanderbilt lost by just five points at Tennessee and lost by just two in overtime at Kentucky.

“They’ve won their last three home games and just really shoot well,” Howland said of Vanderbilt. “(Riley LaChance) is playing superbly. He’s really aggressive offensively and playing very good. (Jeff Roberson) is one of the best players in our league and is a really hard matchup. He’s a three playing the four who can post you and he’s so skilled shooting the ball.

“They’re a team unlike a lot of teams. In transition, everybody runs to the 3-point line. They’re shooting nearly 45 percent of their attempts from 3 and they’re a great 3-point shooting team.”

MSU successfully defended Vanderbilt’s 3-point shooting earlier this season. The Commodores shot just 20 percent (4-of-20) from long range in the two teams’ earlier encounter. The Bulldogs hope for similar success Wednesday as they look to keep their late-season surge ongoing and bounce back from last Saturday’s tough loss at Missouri when a potential Lamar Peters game-winning 3-pointer was taken away due to a controversial foul call.

Despite the defeat at Missouri, Howland said his team is better for it. The Bulldogs want to show that Wednesday and keep making noise that they belong in the NCAA Tournament.
“We can take a lot from that (Missouri) game and use it for the rest of the season,” Howland said. “We can apply it to our next opportunity and know that with all the tough breaks, we still control our own destiny.”

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