STARKVILLE — Quickness versus strength has long been a matchup that favors the fleet of foot, so long as strength doesn”t wear down the lighter opponent.
Mississippi State University men”s basketball team will be the lighter team at 8 tonight (ESPN) in its Southeastern Conference matchup against No. 2 Kentucky, but John Calipari”s big boys can move, too.
At an average height of 6-foot-7, the Wildcats (24-1, 9-1 SEC) have damaged opponents on the glass with a plus-10 rebounding margin this season thanks in large part of the play of forwards Patrick Patterson and freshman DeMarcus Cousins.
The Bulldogs have the nation”s leading shot blocker in Jarvis Varnado, who is 16 blocks shy of tying the all-time NCAA mark. But outside of the 6-foot-9 senior the frontcourt has been bare for the majority of the season.
Experienced bodies on the frontline have been scarce for the Bulldogs (18-7, 6-4), who will play their third game in six days tonight against the SEC”s top team.
MSU has regrouped from a four-game slide to win the first two games of a three-game homestand, but a victory tonight will be a tall order. Coach Rick Stansbury believes his team will have to utilize the quickness of its guard-oriented lineup to maximize its shot at the upset.
Still, the key spots will be up front between Varnado, Kodi Augustus, and sophomore Romero Osby, who has turned in nine- and 11-point games in the last two outings and has provided a scoring dimension to an overworked frontcourt.
Making a player like Patterson guard from the low post to the 3-point line will be the goal for MSU”s forwards tonight, Stansbury said Monday at his weekly media gathering at Humphrey Coliseum.
To do that, MSU will have to give Patterson and Cousins a reason to respect the inside-out game.
“We should have an advantage with Patterson chasing us around. (To do that) we need to make some shots at that position,” Stansbury said of the power forward spot. “For us to have any chance our fours have to step up and give us some difference from what we have at the offensive end than what we have at the defensive end.”
Osby”s role has increased in recent weeks and he”s shown he can provide the missing link for MSU”s depth issues, at least up front. Stansbury said Osby”s size and build will be key against Kentucky.
For Osby, the past two games have restored some of the confidence he lost earlier this season.
“I”ve been a little more confident at the free-throw line, and I”ve been a little more confident making plays around the basket and shooting the ball,” Osby said. “It”s been making me feel a lot better about my game.
“I think every player has little a slump they go through. I”m starting to get out of it at the right time of the season.”
Stansbury hopes Osby is out of his slump and ready to provide the same kind of spark Augustus provided down the stretch last season. Augustus has been a fixture in the starting lineup but is 6 of 23 from the floor in the past three games.
Despite Augustus” struggles, Osby believes the Baton Rouge, La., native is primed to regain his form in the final six league games.
Tonight would be a good time to break out.
“(Kodi) can miss 15 shots and he”s going to be in the gym the very next day working on it taking hundreds and hundreds more,” Osby said. “I was just telling coach (Marcus) Grant a few minutes ago, he”s going to go into one of those stretches to where he can”t miss. That”s coming soon. I”d rather it come now than he have it at the beginning of the season and be shooting terrible now.”
On offense, MSU shouldn”t expect to see much zone. Calipari, who is in his first year as coach at Kentucky, doesn”t feel comfortable leaving 3-point shooters on the wing.
“I”m just a guy who goes nuts when there are open 3-point shots,” Calipari said. “We”re not great against the 3-pointer as it is. Most teams are holding the ball, shooting it late in the clock and as they”re shooting it late in the clock a lot of those are threes or jump shots. If we can guard that better in man than zone, I just don”t see us getting out of that.”
Kentucky is more than just Cousins, who averages 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, and Patterson as freshman guards Eric Bledsoe and John Wall will match up against Barry Stewart and Dee Bost.
Bost is coming off a career-high 32-point effort Saturday against Auburn.
Stewart is regarded as one of the SEC”s top defenders, but Stansbury said Bost would guard Wall, who is making a case for SEC Player of the Year at 17 points and 6.4 assists per game.
How well Bost and Stewart handle Wall and Bledsoe will aid the frontcourt, as Wall”s penetration in the lane has spelled doom for opponents this season.
“I don”t want him to take it personally, but it”ll be a personal challenge (to guard Wall),” Stansbury said of Bost. “He doesn”t back down from challenges.”
The Bulldogs lead the SEC in scoring defense, due in large to Varnado, who once was on the recruiting radar for Calipari when he was coach at Memphis. Calipari knows Varnado can be an intimidating presence and how can he affect a game.
“He”s the reason everybody shoots a lot of jumpers against Mississippi State, which means you shoot a low percentage,” Calipari said. “His blocks and his presence in there scares guys to pull up and take shots they don”t make as easily.”
NOTES: MSU”s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) would get a major boost if it beats Kentucky, the No. 5 team in realtimerpi.com”s rankings this week. RPI is one of the factors the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to select the at-large teams for the 65-team field. MSU has an RPI of 58. … Extra-large maroon and white T-shirts, courtesy of Texaco, will be on every seat in Humphrey Coliseum tonight for fans to wear during the game. … The Bulldogs are shooting for their fourth straight win against Kentucky, which would be a first for the program. … Former MSU player and assistant coach Kermit Davis, who is coach at Middle Tennessee State, is the Bulldogs” SEC legend and will be honored at halftime of tonight”s game.