Mississippi State’s schedule features Georgia and Alabama this week.
So it’s a good thing both contests are being played on the basketball court rather than the football field.
MSU (10-4, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) takes on its fellow Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide in back-to-back contests at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. Alabama, the No. 24 team in the country, comes to town on Saturday evening in a chance for a significant win for Mississippi State.
But before the Bulldogs can take on the Tide, they’ll have to defend their home court against the SEC’s worst team. Georgia has scuffled to a 5-10 start, including an 0-2 SEC mark, featuring a list of humbling losses to smaller programs: George Mason, Wofford, Gardner-Webb and East Tennessee State.
That doesn’t mean Mississippi State can afford to overlook its Bulldog compatriots at 6 p.m. Wednesday, though.
“We need to hold serve, and we’ve got to do a good job,” MSU coach Ben Howland said Tuesday. “We’ve got to have a good home court here.”
Mississippi State won its first home conference game, 81-68 over Arkansas on Dec. 29. The Bulldogs are 8-1 in Starkville this season with their only loss coming to Minnesota on Dec. 5.
And even without forward Tolu Smith, they should theoretically have enough firepower to get past Georgia. Smith missed Saturday’s game at Ole Miss, and Howland indicated Tuesday the redshirt junior will have to test out of COVID-19 protocols before returning to action. Smith did not practice Monday, and the team did not confirm whether he practiced Tuesday.
But Mississippi State has learned to get by without Smith, who has been available for just five of the Bulldogs’ 14 games. Iverson Molinar, Shakeel Moore, Garrison Brooks and D.J. Jeffries should be able to lead the scoring charge against a Georgia team ranked No. 281 out of 358 Division I teams in defense.
The red and black Bulldogs have given up 80 or more points five times, including in both SEC contests. They lost to Texas A&M by just two points Jan. 4 in Athens thanks to a 3-pointer by the Aggies with 1.2 seconds left; on Saturday, Kentucky handled the Bulldogs 92-77.
Georgia has four players averaging 10 or more points per game — Kario Oquendo (12.9), Braelen Bridges (12.6), Aaron Cook (10.7) and Jailyn Ingram (10.7). Guard Noah Baumann has finished in double digits in four straight games, including 25 against ETSU on Dec. 22.
“They have guys who can put the ball in the basket,” Howland said. They’ve got older guys who have been through the wars. They’re very experienced, and they’re a team that we’re going to have to play well against.”
Despite its experience, Georgia is a cut below the SEC’s other 13 teams. The Bulldogs rank No. 210 in the nation per KenPom.com; the next-lowest SEC team is Missouri at No. 148. They give up a league-high 74.3 points per game while scoring 71, which ranks 11th in the conference.
Two areas in which Georgia does excel are getting to the foul line and keeping other teams away from it. Howland noted MSU’s opponent sits in the top 25 nationally in free throw attempts, and their foul rate on defense ranks inside the top 40.
The Mississippi State coach knows how important defending without sending Georgia to the line will be, particularly after giving up 50 points in the first half in Saturday’s 82-72 loss to Ole Miss.
“We’ve got to play really good defense,” Howland said. “We’ve done a good job thus far on the season so far, knock on wood, of defending without fouling. We’ve got to continue that. Everything starts and ends with our defense, and you saw how bad that hurt us when that’s not the case the other night in Oxford.”
A lack of energy and several costly miscommunications did in the Bulldogs against the Rebels, and Howland knows that can’t happen again. MSU will have to bring the aggression and toughness “from the get-go” on Wednesday, he said.
Early returns suggest that will be the case. Howland said his team had a strong workout Monday and hoped for another Tuesday before the two teams of Bulldogs face off Wednesday evening.
“That’s always good after a disappointing defeat to come back and have a real good practice, and today we’ve got to have another one getting ready for Georgia tomorrow,” Howland said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.