Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
Given the season, I’m quite thankful for early-season tournaments, which give us schedules like today, featuring several high-quality match-ups including #16 Mississippi St. (5-0) versus #26 Washington St. (4-0) from the Legends Classic in Newark, NJ.
On paper, this game doesn’t feature the most compelling teams in terms of consensus national rankings, but to me it seems like one of the best early-season ‘bubble’ games there’s been. Looking at both our previews here at CHN and in other sources, the general feeling on both teams is that they were good last year, but have lost so much entering this season that they will end up at or around .500 in conference play, and right on the bubble line. So, whichever team wins here will not only have a leg up over the other in a direct comparison, but also a potential matchup with Pitt that will provide another chance to build a national profile. Given the Pac-10’s poor start to the season, and the SEC West’s lack of a top-tier team, a .500 conference record will put an NCAA bid in real jeopardy, so both teams could really use the win, even in November.
Both teams have mostly stuck to home games against weaker teams, but we can still see some patterns in these results. This looks like it will be a very defensive game, but the defenses will take two very different approaches, as Washington St. plays at a very slow pace, while the Bulldogs tend to run the game much quicker. This is especially true inside, where both teams are in the top 5 nationally in two-point field goal defense. Washington St. has had a slight advantage in this area, since they have taken very few fouls in accruing this record. The Cougars have also been very strong on the defensive glass, an area where Mississippi St.’s record so far is surprisingly poor.
Offensively, both teams are somewhat similar in results, if not in style, fairly three-heavy with good ball movement and solid shooting. They also both struggle with turnovers, and don’t do particularly well at the line. Generally, Mississippi St. is a weak free throw shooting team, while Washington St. tends to get fewer opportunities. If it does come down to threes, Mississippi St. tends to shoot better but somewhat less often, and it will be interesting to see if either team tries to shift a little more of their offensive focus to the perimeter to avoid the strong interior defenses
As mentioned, both teams are also integrating a lot of young players, as Mississippi St. has lost Jamont Gordon, Ben Hansbrough and Charles Rhodes, while Washington St. lost Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. However, there are definitely some interesting returning players in this game that will be key for their respective team’s seasons.
For the Bulldogs, Jarvis Varnado is an excellent shot blocker and athlete, and enters the game as last week’s SEC Player of the Week. The defending national defensive player of the year faces a new challenge this season, as he faces an expanded role in the offense, and will need to work to prevent his game from regressing under the added pressure. The good news is that this seems like it is going well in the early season, as Varnado has picked up his effort on the boards, recording his longest streak of double-digit rebound games in a row, and in scoring, as he set a new career high in points on Tuesday against St. Bonaventure. His free throw shooting also improved, over a fairly small sample, to adequate, and if he can maintain anything like his early season form into conference play, the Bulldogs will be better than expected.
Washington St.’s perimeter heavy game will depend on good play from senior guard Taylor Rochestie. Rochestie is an excellent shooter, hitting 40% of his threes last season, but is also an excellent point guard, who takes good care of the ball and gets a lot of assists in Tony Bennett’s offense. While Rochestie can’t replace the losses in the backcourt, he can be effective at running the offense, and if Washington St. has it’s typical solid defense, that may be enough for a solid season.
Some other players to watch are center Aron Baynes for Washington St., who will go head to head with Varnado when the Cougars are on the attack, and Barry Stewart, who will take a lot of shots for Mississippi St., though generally with mixed success.
I think that Washington St. will be sound enough defensively to cause Mississippi St. a lot of problems, and given the defensive tilt the game will likely take, that will be enough to give them a narrow win.
Winner: Washington St. Margin: 1-5