Quinndary Weatherspoon vs. UT

Mississippi State's Quinndary Weatherspoon, right, guards Tennessee's Lamonte Turner during last season's meeting in Starkville.

In just a few weeks, Mississippi State plans to be fighting its way through the NCAA Tournament.

The Bulldogs know that, should they have success in the madness of March, they’ll have to battle through elite competition. Tuesday, MSU gets a practice run.

Mississippi State (21-8, 9-7) travels northward today for a road tilt at No. 5 Tennessee (26-3, 14-2). The Bulldogs and Volunteers will tip off at 8 p.m. in Knoxville in a game televised by SEC Network. It’s a contest MSU head coach Ben Howland believes gives his team a chance to see where they measure up against one of the nation’s best groups.

“I think this is a team that’s going to have a chance to get to a Final Four that we’re playing,” Howland said of Tennessee.

The Volunteers are indeed on a track to make a run at a national title. Tennessee’s only losses this season have come at the hands of opponents ranked among the nation’s top 13 teams – No. 6 Kentucky, No. 10 LSU and No. 13 Kansas.

The Vols have achieved such a high level of success by leading the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense (82.8 points per game) and field goal percentage defense (holding opponents to 39.2 percent shooting per game).

It’s the Tennessee defense that stands out the most to Howland.

“It’s still the old adage – you win with defense first,” Howland said. “They’re proof of that. They have great depth. They’re very physical. They pound you inside.”

The Volunteers, amongst many good players, boast a pair of standouts. Forward Grant Williams and guard Admiral Schofield are two of the SEC’s premier performers. Both are among the league’s top five scorers this season with Williams, the defending SEC Player of the Year, leading the bunch.

Williams averages 19.3 points per game. He’s also sixth in the league in rebounding with 7.6 per outing.

Meanwhile Schofield averages 16.4 points and 6.4 boards per contest.

“Those two guys have been consistent,” Howland said of Williams and Schofield. “They’ve been very good here the last two years. They’ve got them in position to win a second SEC championship (in a row) with two games left. They’re playing for a lot and those two are great winners, leaders, competitors and unbelievable bodies. They’re special. There’s no question.”

Williams, Schofield and the rest of the Volunteers will certainly give Howland’s Bulldogs a gauge of where they stand with postseason play nearing.

With the big dance looming, MSU will try to build momentum Tuesday night with a successful trip to Rocky Top. The Bulldogs would certainly consider it a tremendous accomplishment if they could knock off the Vols on their home floor.

“They’re a team that’s built to make a long run in the NCAA Tournament,” Howland said of Tennessee.

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