Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi State

 Mississippi State offense

Formerly great, now in a cold streak

This went pretty swimmingly up until two weeks ago. Kind of like the team I normally write about! From their November 26 loss to Liberty to their January 9 win over Vanderbilt, Mississippi State played 11 games of basketball. In ten of those games, the Bulldogs got past the 1 PPP mark despite only having two true explosions of shooting among them, neither against good opponents. If you narrow the focus to just those 11 games, the Bulldogs were performing at the level of the 15th-best offense in America, per Synergy. They got there by way of making almost 40% of their threes:

And by hammering the boards unlike just about anyone else in a power conference.

The Bulldogs were rebounding an astounding 38.9% of misses at one point, which was putting them in line with classic board-crashers like North Carolina and West Virginia. It wasn’t often pretty basketball, but it was an offense that worked and delivered pretty well, which is what you generally want. It also covered some massive failings on the defensive side that we’ll get to later.

However, if there’s one thing we should all know by now about college basketball, it’s that the sport is as high-variance a sport as exists. 3PT% bounces from game-to-game like a yo-yo, and even the best shooting teams in the sport’s history can be counted to have an off night every once in a while. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they’ve delivered four straight off nights in a row. Since the Vanderbilt win on January 9, State is 1-3 in their last four, hasn’t gotten over the 1 PPP hump, and is on a four-game streak of shooting 14-for-50 (28%) from downtown.

Again, you can chalk this up to variance, which I am doing, or you can say that State suddenly forgot how to shoot. In the COVID world, anything truly is possible. It definitely helped that State, minus the Georgia game and maybe one other, is just not a three-point-bombing team.

The only team in the SEC that loves mid-range jumpers more than Kentucky

The Bulldogs sit 343rd in America in terms of three-point attempt rate; only 347 teams are participating in this season. Instead, the Bulldogs are far more likely, especially as of late, to step inside the three-point line and take a mid-range jumper.

Only eight teams in America take more non-rim two-pointers than the Bulldogs, per Hoop-Math. It would obviously be one thing if they were hitting these non-rim twos at a high rate, like Xavier (44.1%, 35.6% of all attempts) or USC (43.8%, 35%). But they’re not, and they’re actively awful shots. 41.4% of all State shot attempts are non-rim twos, and they’re hitting just 33.5% of them:

You can largely chalk these shots up to Iverson Molinar (101 long twos) and D.J. Stewart (123!), a pair of guards who are simply very happy to shoot in general. Both are actually hitting these shots at or above 40% on the season, which means they are fine to keep taking them to some extent. Molinar gets a lot of his possessions done off of Ben Howland’s ball-screen sets, and he is a threat to shoot at all three levels from them. However, his default is to pull up for a longer two-pointer:

Stewart gets ball-screen looks as well, but State runs some relatively unique sets for him to get shots off from both three and two. In half-court, Stewart has taken 70 jumpers off the dribble and has taken 16 more two-point jumpers than threes, per Synergy. You can count on him to try and work it inside the perimeter if he can help it.

They start two centers – yes – and one of them is very good

The last guy to pay attention to is Tolu Smith, who serves as one of the two centers in State’s frontcourt. (Yes, Abdul Ado is still there.) Neither Smith nor his counterpart ever shoot threes, which means State spends about half of every game taking almost no threes at all. When Smith and Ado are out there together, just 22.1% of all State shot attempts are threes, per Hoop-Explorer. And yet: it actually really works. The offense is way better when the two are out there together, and Smith has proven pretty hard to stop in the post:

Or on the boards:

This is a really unique matchup for Tennessee and one that they’re very unlikely to face the rest of the way; the number of high-major teams still playing two guys that largely do not shoot beyond 10 feet is pretty low these days. But for a team who’s had some issues with allowing points to roll men and off of cuts as of late, it’s a necessary test to show they can recover and get better.

Here’s a quick scout of Mississippi State’s rotation. Only players who receive at least 10 minutes per game in SEC play are considered. The first five players are projected starters. Positions in parentheses are from Bart Torvik’s algorithm.

  • #1 Iverson Molinar (combo G). Co-#1 scoring option with Stewart. Molinar doesn’t take a ton of threes (three per game, to be exact), but he’s hitting 48.7% of them after hitting a solid 37.1% last year. One would think this would cause you to take more threes, but whatever. Heavy on midrange, not a ton of fouls drawn. Closest thing to a PG in starting lineup.
  • #3 D.J. Stewart (wing G). Co-#1 scoring option with Molinar. Takes over four threes a game, takes nearly 8 mid-range attempts a game. Also doesn’t draw a ton of fouls. State runs a lot of off-ball screens for him to shoot from. Less efficient than Molinar, 9-for-36 from three in SEC play.
  • #0 Jalen Johnson (wing G). Only played four minutes against Alabama because Howland thinks he is an awful defender. 40.7% on threes, 38.5% on twos. This is his third school. Not that Jalen Johnson or the other Jalen Johnson.
  • #35 Tolu Smith (center). Yes, State plays two centers. Smith is the better one and is a dominant force on the offensive boards. Gets fouled a lot, is hitting 79.3% of his attempts at the rim. Unfortunately, 52 of his attempts have not been at the rim, and he’s hitting on 23.1% of those. Legitimately should consider Hack-A-Smith if he gets the ball in a scoring position; career 58.8% FT shooter.
  • #24 Abdul Ado (center). Less efficient of the two centers, but a better defender. Blocks a lot of shots but has the highest turnover rate in the starting lineup. Ado is just average in the post and doesn’t seem to be very good at finishing off of basket cuts anymore. Genuinely feels like he’s been the exact same player all four years.
  • #5 Deivon Smith (wing G). Freshman who is sixth in minutes and fourth in possessions used. Unfortunately, few of those possessions are good. Smith ranks in the 10th-percentile of offensive efficiency and is turning it over on 27.3% of his possessions.
  • #4 Cameron Matthews (wing G). Another freshman. Looks to be really good on defense…but is atrocious offensively. I’ve never seen this before, but he is 2-for-17 on free throws.
  • #2 Javian Davis (stretch 4). Seems to be the guy Howland brings in when he doesn’t want to go double-big but also doesn’t want four guards out there. Very inefficient, atrocious free throw shooter, but he does get fouled a lot. Wonder why!

NEXT PAGE: Certainly a defense in some aspects

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