Analysis and information on Mississippi State players includes contributions from college basketball freelance writer and researcher Nathan Giese
The Vanderbilt Commodores might have defeated the Kentucky Wildcats this past Saturday if Matthew Fisher-Davis had not gotten hurt. That's a perfectly reasonable statement to make, and accordingly, a reflection of the well-founded belief that the margin between success and failure for Vanderbilt in this 2018 season is a relatively fine one.
Yet, for every reasonable statement about the closeness of victory for VU, one can offer a response which tempers the fires of enthusiasm and casts the trajectory of this SEC campaign in a less optimistic light. Against Kentucky, Vanderbilt competed very well on the glass and committed few turnovers in one of its cleaner offensive performances of the season. (Shooting inaccuracy, though not pleasant, is not the same thing as unclean play; it is an entirely different part of the basketball formula. That weighed down the offense more than anything else this past weekend.) Yet, a few days after Tennessee and Grant Williams torched the Dores' defense, the results at that end of the floor were little better against UK.
Vanderbilt allowed field goal shooting over 53 percent despite the fact that Kentucky lacked Quade Green and accordingly had to use a shortened seven-man rotation. With players having to log more minutes for John Calipari, one would have logically assumed that accumulated strain would lead to tired, errant jump shots and declining percentages on Saturday. Kentucky's shooting numbers represented a profound missed opportunity for the VU defense.
It was even worse than that.
Kentucky earned 37 foul shots. Bad officiating or not, that's far too many freebies to a team without high-end scorers (at least high-end scorers on par with last year's group, which had Malik Monk and lightning-quick De'Aaron Fox plus beastly Bam Adebayo on the low blocks). When one realizes that Kentucky made just 25 of those 37 foul shots, the nature of a seven-point loss takes on a different tone.
It's not as though the game wasn't close -- it certainly was -- but the 25-of-37 foul line stat is meant to underscore the point that Kentucky played a large part in enabling Vanderbilt to remain close. Free throws, in a bitter plot twist, crushed VU's hopes when Riley LaChance bricked three late charity pitches just when the Dores still had a chance to prevail. It remains that Kentucky's generosity at the foul line left the door open for the Dores. The past week involved two legitimately competitive games, but Vanderbilt's defense was not particularly close to sufficient, nowhere near the level this team needs to win in a cutthroat SEC which has no easy outs.
This brings us to the next stop along the road, the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Vanderbilt and MSU both own just one SEC win. On a surface level, both teams want to show that they are better than close-game losers. Making that transition from the dark side to the sunshine side of a small margin is the fundamental transformation basketball teams have to figure out in order to be good. Yet, don't let that surface reality of close losses and "almost-theres" be too much of a distraction or carry too much narrative weight.
Vanderbilt's past week, especially against Kentucky, shows that close games can be close not because of one team's marvelous ability to stay in the hunt, but because of the opponent's inability to pull away. Vanderbilt has to prove not just that it can win a close one, but that it establishes leverage because of the things it does well, not because of what the opponent does poorly (or at least, because it establishes its successes to a point that the opponent must react).
That is the challenge in front of VU as it tries to pick off an opponent which doesn't have a horrible overall record, but is very much in the same position of having a lot to prove after two frustrating weeks in the SEC. These teams have different resumes and profiles, but they will be brought together on Tuesday by the need to shake free of chains.
Here is a look at Mississippi State's notable performers:
Quinndary Weatherspoon: The team’s leading scorer, Weatherspoon spends most of his time along the perimeter. Of his 175 shots attempted, 64 have come from 3-point range and he’s only connecting on 33 percent of those attempts. He makes up for his lack of shooting by getting to the free throw line frequently. The highest percentage of his attempts have been in transition, on spot-up shots and in the pick-and-roll.
He’s also a defensive menace, coming up with 25 steals and holding opponents to 34 percent shooting. His lone downfall is he’s average defending spot up jumpers but excels in harassing players into hurrying themselves.
Aric Holman: The 6-foot-10 big man barely misses, hitting 61 percent of his attempts on the season. He’s a capable 3-point shooter but doesn’t get to the line all that often. Holman is second on the team in rebounding (6.8 per game) and finishes at a high rate inside the paint.
Holman’s a decent defender as well, with 21 blocks on the season. He’s allowing just under 34 percent shooting.
Nick Weatherspoon: Another solid offensive piece for the Bulldogs, Weatherspoon does a great deal of damage in transition and in the pick-and-roll. He’s take the second most shots on the team and doesn’t crash the boards all that often. Teams have had a hard time scoring against either Weatherspoon and Nick is allowing just 107 points over 152 possessions.
Tyson Carter: Carter loves the 3-pointer, taking 84 shots behind the arc so far this season. Unfortunately, he’s made fewer than 30 percent of those shots, so he’s taking the shots, he's just not hitting them all too often. Still, when 60 percent of someone’s shots have been in one particular area, it’s best to assume that’s where he’s going with them.
At this point, it’s best to point out that teams are shooting less than 39 percent overall against Mississippi State. They’re a great defensive team and Carter is no exception to this dynamic.
Abdul Ado: Ado isn’t much of a go-to option on offense with just 69 attempts from the field overall and hitting 65 percent of those attempt. Unsurprisingly, almost all of his attempts have been in the paint for the 6-foot-11 post. He has 36 blocks and 20 steals on the season.
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