The Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-7; 2-1) will take on the Georgia Bulldogs (13-4; 2-2) this Saturday in what will be a critical game for both teams, with the winner earning an above .500 record in the conference.
I cannot express how happy I am that Georgia will finally play Mississippi State WITHOUT Jarvis Varnado manning the paint. Varnado, the SEC’s all-time leading shot blocker, only lost to Georgia once in his career (in five games), and he rejected 24 of the Dawgs‘ shot attempts. Varnado swatted 6 shots in MSU’s 72-69 win over the Dawgs last year in Starkville, a frustrating game in which Georgia blew a 13-point lead with only 4:16 remaining. He will certainly not be missed in Athens this Saturday.
Don’t let State’s 10-7 record fool you – this is a team that has been playing most of the season without two of its best players – sophomore Renardo Sidney and junior Dee Bost. Sidney missed games at the beginning of the year due to an NCAA suspension, and then he was suspended for a few more after brawling with teammate Elgin Bailey before a preseason tournament game in Hawaii. The NCAA punished Bost as well with a nine-game suspension for not withdrawing his name from the 2010 NBA Draft by the established deadline.
Both of the players are back now and starting, and MSU is beginning to play more like the team that Rivals.com projected to win the SEC West (at the moment they sport a 2-1 conference record).
Mississippi State, much like Tennessee, will look to play very physical against Georgia on Saturday, and they have the personnel to do it. At 6’10” and 270 pounds, Renardo Sidney is an absolute tank on the inside. The preseason All-SEC Second Team selection is netting 14.4 ppg and 5.8 rpg, and he has a surprising soft touch on his short-range jumper (52.7% from the field). Joining Sidney on the block is senior forward Kodi Augustus, who is averaging just under a double-double per game in SEC play with 9.0 ppg and 10.7 rpg.
Dee Bost runs the show in the front court, leading this team with 7.0 apg to go along with 16.0 ppg. He is very good at getting past his defender and into the paint, where he can either look to score or kick it out to one of his sharp-shooters – Ravern Johnson or Riley Benock. Senior marksman Ravern Johnson leads this State team in scoring with 18.5 ppg, and he’s connecting on 37% of his three-point attempts. Benock is only chipping in 7.6 ppg, but he is deadly from beyond the arc, nailing over 45% of his attempts. Both of these guys can get white-hot during games, with Johnson hitting 3 or more three-pointers in nine games this season (Benock has gone for 3 or more three’s in six games).
In Georgia‘s two SEC losses this season (Vandy, Tennessee), Trey Thompkins was double- and triple-teamed when he received the ball on the block. I definitely expect to see Mississippi State attempt to guard Trey in a similar manner, or at least until the Dawgs show that they can handle it (which Georgia didn’t do well against Vandy or Tennessee). Coach Mark Fox has to find ways to get his guys spaced so that when the double-team goes to Thompkins, he has a viable option on offense to pass to.
This is a veteran Mississippi State team (starting 3 seniors, a junior and a sophomore) that has already won its first SEC road game (at Ole Miss). However, they do have one glaring weakness, and that is the fact that they haven’t done a great job of protecting the basketball through their first three conference games. MSU is turning the ball over more than any other team in the SEC at 17.0 per league game. If the Dawgs play the same brand of intense defense on Saturday that they played against Tennessee last Tuesday night, Mississippi State will give them the ball a number of times.
Trey Thompkins, Gerald Robinson, Jr. and Travis Leslie are obviously the nucleus of this Georgia Bulldogs basketball team. In league play, Robinson is scoring 18.3 ppg, Thompkins 18.0 ppg and Leslie 16.8 ppg. They are without a doubt the heart and soul of the Georgia offense.
However, one interesting thing to note: in all four of Georgia losses this year, no one else besides Trey, GR2 or Leslie scored in double-figures. In the Dawgs’ two SEC wins over Kentucky and Mississippi, other players (Ware and Price) scored more than 10 points as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Ware and Price (or another big?) have to supplement the scoring of the Dawgs Big Three (Trey, GR2, Leslie) for Georgia to become more consistent on offense.
For anyone who attended or watched the Tennessee game, the result was heartbreaking. I can only imagine how upset the players must have felt. This game on Saturday will provide Georgia with a great opportunity to bounce back and get another conference win.
But this Mississippi State team is going to come into Athens and they will be ready for a fight (sorry Renardo Sidney, no pun intended).
In my opinion, this is a must-win for the Dawgs, especially since they have Florida up next and then they are at Kentucky. If Georgia loses to State, they will have to beat both the Gators and the Cats just to get back above .500 in conference play.
Georgia is 8-1 at home this season, and they are 2-1 when coming off of a loss.
Can Mark Fox’s team rebound on Saturday after dropping the buzzer-beater last Tuesday?