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Fresh off their biggest SEC road win of the Calipari era, UK will return home to take on another top 25 team tonight at Rupp Arena. After the ballyhooed hire of Ben Howland, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are finally seeing legitimate results in his fourth season.
With a roster that has a nice mix of upperclassmen to go with young talent, State has spent this entire season in the top 25. It would take a crazy turn of events for this team to not be dancing come March.
Behind a senior wing and a tough as nails junior point guard, the Bulldogs have the potential to compete for an SEC championship.
Most people are ready for that huge clash against Kansas on Saturday, but the Cats have a tough challenge tonight. Mississippi State is a tough and skilled basketball team. They will not be intimidated by the stage and UK will have to play well to improve to 5-1 in SEC play.
Nuts and Bolts
After a four-year run at Pittsburgh that included two Big East titles, Ben Howland made the move west to run the program at UCLA. At the end of that tenure he was labeled a bust, but after the mediocre run by Steve Alford it's hard to look down on Howland's run in Westwood.
In Los Angeles, Howland recruited and developed multiple pros and led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008. In 10 seasons, Howland led UCLA to 233 victories, three 30-win seasons, four Pac-12 titles, and seven NCAA Tournaments.
After missing the tournament in two of his last four seasons, it was time for a change.
Howland sat out for two years before he jumped back into college coaching. After reeling in five-star recruit Malik Newman in his first recruiting haul, expectations were high. However, State got off to a very slow start. It took until year three before the Bulldogs made the postseason. That was last year when they recorded 25 victories and made it to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semifinals. Now they're destined to breakthrough for the program's first NCAA Tournament since 2009.
The highs have been high and the lows have been low for this basketball program. Since 1996, Mississippi State has reached a Final Four, claimed an SEC regular season title, and won three SEC Tournaments. During that time they've also had six losing seasons. You can win big here, but it is very hard to keeping it humming in consecutive seasons.
Tonight will be the 107th meeting between the two programs with Kentucky owning an 88-18 series lead. Mississippi State is the only SEC team that is winless against John Calipari at Kentucky.
The Wildcats have won 11 in a row against the Bulldogs. State's last win occurred in February 2009 in Rupp Arena.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 6.5 point favorite with a total of 144.5. That's a projected final score of 75.5-69. Both Kentucky and Mississippi State are 8-9 against the spread. The over is 5-2 in State's last seven games. Kentucky is 2-3 against the spread as a single-digit favorite. Each defeat resulted in a straight up loss.
The two covers occurred on the road by double-digits. This will be the first time Mississippi State has been a dog all season.
History tells us that Ben Howland's teams are more known for their hard nosed defense and less for their scoring punch. This team is nearly the opposite. The Dogs can put the ball in the hole and it all starts with a three-headed attack on the perimeter.
Malik Newman got all of the attention in Howland's first class, but it's now fair to say that Quinndary Weatherspoon has developed into the better college basketball player.
The 6-foot-4 guard plays the three for the Bulldogs and was a second team All-SEC member as both a sophomore and a junior. He started the 100th game of his career in this past weekend's win over Vanderbilt and he paces this squad.
The senior from the small town of Canton, Mississippi leads the team in minutes (32.9) and points (16.6). He's second on the team in rebounds (5.8) and assists (2.9). He's an above average three-point shooter, but what he does best is attack the basket. Weatherspoon is attempting just under five foul shots per game and there he is shooting over 80 percent. He's a very good basketball player.
With any team with a really good offense, you have to have a point guard that drives the car. Mississippi State has exactly that in junior lefty Lamar Peters. The New Orleans native has been starting since his freshman season and he's been outstanding this year.
The six-foot lead guard ranks fifth in the SEC in assists (99) and is shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc.
He's a solid defender and is pouring in over 13 points per games.
You need one more guard to have a true small ball lineup and that is where Nick Weatherspoon comes in. The younger brother of Quinddary has become a very quality player in his sophomore season.
The 6-foot-2 combo guard is Mississippi State's most prolific three-point shooter (19 makes on a 46.3 percent clip) in addition to being very efficient from two-point range. He's an excellent role player and is the future of this basketball program. Weatherspoon averages 10.3 points per outing and that means that all three of State's starters in the backcourt average double-digits.
Off the bench, Mississippi State uses combo guard Tyson Carter to fill in at each spot. The 6-foot-4 hometown kid from Starkville is playing over 20 minutes per game and has been one of the most productive bench players in the SEC. Carter is putting up just under 10 points per game and has been this squad's most efficient offensive player in a somewhat small sample size.
The Dogs may be small in the backcourt, but they are very long at the four and five. In the post, the Bulldogs have experience and rim protection, but they also have a guy that can step away from the bucket.
Aric Holman is a 6-foot-10 senior from Owensboro, Kentucky who will be having a homecoming of sorts tonight at Rupp Arena. The stretch big has had an excellent career in Starkville. This season he is having a career year.
The lengthy forward is averaging over 12 points per game and is shooting 44 percent from three. He's recording over eight boards per game and leads the team with 38 blocks. This squad is ran by its perimeter players, but Holman is a very integral piece.
Next to him in the starting lineup is sophomore Abdul Ado and the 6-foot-11 big from Nigeria is your more traditional five. Ado will get all of his buckets in the paint and he's an effective free throw shooter when fouled. He's a solid shot blocker and is a piece that fits very well in Mississippi State's scheme.
Off the bench, Ben Howland has the luxury of a five-star freshman at his disposal. Reggie Perry was a huge recruiting win for the Bulldogs and Mississippi State is being able to bring him along slowly. The 6-foot-10 and 245-pound rookie is playing nearly 20 minutes per game and is this team's best rebounder. With this option off of the bench, State has the length to give UK's frontcourt a ton of problems
If Mississippi State wants to play big, they can put freshman Robert Woodard II in the lineup. The 6-foot-7 freshman is another solid young piece for Ben Howland and he's been productive in limited minutes on the wing. The four-star prospect hasn't been really good at anything particular yet, but he is a player with a lot of potential.
Keys to Victory
- Mississippi State has done a great job at roster construction and the Bulldogs can play a lot of different ways. They can get big, go small, and play a mix of both at the same time. With a skilled big like Aric Holman, UK will find its defense in a bind. One of UK's bigs is going to have to consistently play away from the basket. Kentucky is going to see a heavy dose of ball screen actions and how they defend it could determine the game. Reid Travis has struggled with this all season. Add that in with the size State's frontline presents and this could be a game for E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards.
- With the personnel Mississippi State has in the frontcourt, it's going to be important for UK to take advantage of its strengths on the perimeter. After scoring just six points in the win over Auburn, UK will need Ashton Hagans to take on more of a scoring role tonight. Mississippi State doesn't have a guard physical enough to stay with Hagans and he should do a lot of damage when he's playing downhill. His drives to the basket should result in some easy lay-ups and good looks for teammates. Getting Mississippi State's shot blockers constantly moving will be key. This is what Hagans can provide with the dribble drive.
- Feels like we mention it every game, but it will once again be important tonight. As a team, Mississippi State is shooting over 38 percent from behind the arc. This ranks 26th in the country. Due to the stretch ability of Aric Holman, this will be a unique challenge for UK to take on. Every guard Mississippi State plays can shoot and the multi-dimensional ability of Holman will put UK in a bind. The Wildcats must be ready to close out on shooters.
- Basketball is a team sport and I believe that a lot of time individual matchups are way overstated. They're good talking points, but rarely does an isolation contest between two players win a game. However, that could be different tonight. It's hard to imagine UK winning without Keldon Johnson playing well. Going against one of the best wings in the SEC, Johnson needs to build off his 20-point outing in the win over Auburn.