ATLANTA — Ole Miss and Mississippi State won’t finish this basketball season without duking it out one last time. The rivals square off for the third time tonight in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The teams split their first two meetings in the regular season, each winning at home. Mississippi State (14-18 overall) won 76-72 in Starkville on Jan. 11 with Marshall Henderson watching from the bench as he served the final game of a three-game suspension. Ole Miss (18-13) was more convincing in its win at C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum two weeks later, running away with an 82-63 victory.
Ole Miss obviously needs a win to stay in the tournament and keep its hopes alive of making a run to the championship, which is its only path to the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State, which snapped a 13-game losing streak with Wednesday night’s upset of Vanderbilt, is playing for pride.
So how will the rubber match play out? Here’s a look at some stats that could tell us:
43 — Missississippi State’s team shooting percentage coming into the tournament, which ranked ninth in the SEC. The Bulldogs’ season-long offensive struggles can be directly tied to their lack of shooters. The results get worse the farther they get from the basket as Mississippi State is shooting just 30 percent from 3-point range. If the Bulldogs are forced to settle for outside shots, they’re in trouble.
59 — The percentage the Bulldogs shot against Vanderbilt on Wednesday night. It was by far their best shooting night of the season and their highest mark since shooting 56 percent against New Orleans on Jan. 3, 2013. That performance alone bumped the Bulldogs into a tie with Arkansas for sixth in the league in field goal percentage. At this point of the season, teams are what they are, and it’s going to be hard for Mississippi State to shoot that well again, but the Bulldogs could be getting hot at the right time.
56 — The number of free throws Mississippi State has attempted against Ole Miss. The Bulldogs are much more effective when they can attack off the dribble and get the ball inside, and they’ve had a ton of success doing that against the Rebels. Mississippi State had a particularly easy time of it in Starkville, getting in the lane time and time again for an eye-popping 42 trips to the charity stripe. Bulldog guard Craig Sword finished with 15 points in that game despite not making a single field goal. Ole Miss limited Mississippi State’s chances in the second meeting thanks in large part to a blend of full-court and half-court traps and could use a similar effort tonight.
48.3 — Jarvis Summers’ shooting percentage this season. With Henderson’s recent shooting woes — more on that in a bit — and the Rebels struggling to get production elsewhere, Summers has been the consistent presence keeping the Rebels afloat. His 16.9 points per game is nearly eight points higher than what he averaged last year, and his 3.8 assists per game rank fourth in the SEC. His field goal percentage is even higher against the Bulldogs this year at a combined 50 percent (13 of 26).
32, 30 — Henderson’s shooting percentages from the field and beyond the arc, respectively, over the last eight games. He’s hit more than 35 percent of his shots just once in that span, going 6 of 13 with five 3s against Georgia on Feb. 15. The Rebels are likely to go as far as Henderson and Summers take them, meaning they need Henderson to play like the all-SEC performer he’s been for the better part of the last two seasons. Henderson said his recent practice routines have consisted of shooting until he makes “400 or 500″ shots a day.
+2.7 — Ole Miss’ turnover margin, which is tied for second in the SEC. The Rebels’ half-court defense hasn’t been great, and their lack of size on the perimeter has made it tough to stop bigger-bodied guards from getting by them off the dribble. Ole Miss has countered with the previously mentioned full-court and half-court traps to try to stop offenses before they get started, something Mississippi State coach Rick Ray acknowledged his team is going to have to handle in order to stay out of lulls. The Rebels are 11-4 when they force more than 15 turnovers and have 20 takeaways against Mississippi State this season.
Tonight’s game is the first time Ole Miss and State will meet in the tournament since 2003. Tipoff is set for approximately 9:30 ET.
(March 13, 2014)