Mississippi State (7-8, 2-1 SEC) at Tennessee (8-7, 0-3 SEC)
Saturday, Jan. 19, 4:00 p.m. ET
Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) • Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads, 75-41
Probable Mississippi State Starters
F-Gavin Ware, 6-9, 270, FR, (8.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, .520 FG%)
F-Colin Borchert, 6-8, 231, JR, (7.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 bpg)
G-Craig Sword, 6-3, 190, JR, (9.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.9 spg)
G-Jalen Steele, 6-3, 194, JR, (10.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, .394 3FG%)
G-Trivante Bloodman, 6-0, 182, SO, (5.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg)
Key Reserves: Roquez Johnson (6-7, 210, SO); Fred Thomas (6-5, 191, FR); Tyson Cunningham (6-3, 194, JR).
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Kenny Hall, 6-9, 230, SR, (6.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, .531 FG%)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (10.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, .518 FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (8.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 500 FG%)
G-Skylar McBee, 6-3, 195, SR, (5.9 ppg, 0.9 rpg, .316 3PT%)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-5, 178, JR, (13.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .324 3PT%)
Key Reserves: Trae Golden (6-2, 205, JR); Armani Moore (6-5, 205, FR); Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 250, SO); Derek Reese (6-7, 218, FR).
The opening tip
An 0-3 start in SEC play isn’t what coach Cuonzo Martin envisioned for this season. That’s what UT faces, however, and it needs to start digging out of that hole before it becomes too deep to recover from.
There is some relief coming on the schedule, though. Starting with Saturday’s contest against the Bulldogs, the Vols play three of their next four games at home. With the exception of their trip to Ole Miss next Thursday, UT should either be favored, or only a slight underdog, in its next eight games.
That’s not to say the Vols will win all of them, but there’s at least a chance to make up some ground after a slow start.
That journey starts with taking care of business against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, led by first-year head coach Rick Ray, were picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC in the preseason, but they jumped out to a 2-0 start in SEC play before a humiliating 75-43 loss to Alabama on Wednesday.
With only nine healthy players available on the roster, the Bulldogs are thin on depth, but have a few players who can make an impact. Knoxville native Jalen Steele is one of the top 3-point shooters in the league. Freshman forward Gavin Ware (6-9, 270) is one of the few players in the league who match up well with UT forward Jarnell Stokes (6-8, 270) from a physical standpoint.
The Vols need Stokes, who has struggled to stay on the court due to foul trouble the last two games, to play smarter. They’ll also hope swingman Jordan McRae can stay hot. The junior, who has helped out some at the point with Trae Golden struggling, has scored 20 or more points in the last four contests.
Expect Martin to keep experimenting to get his best five on the court. That could mean seeing a lot more of sophomore center Yemi Makanjuola, freshman guard Armani Moore and freshman swingman Derek Reese.
“I think for us, Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes – those guys have the potential to be really good scorers. Now it’s just a matter of putting those guys in position to be successful to score the ball,” – Martin on who, other than McRae, can provide scoring for the Vols.
McRae is currently second in the league in scoring in SEC games (23.3 ppg). … The Vols are looking to avoid their first 0-4 start to SEC play since the 1993-94 campaign. … A couple of other UT sports will be involved during the game. Former Tennessee baseball player Chase Headley, now with the San Diego Padres, will be recognized. The new football staff will also be recognized. Coach Butch Jones and his staff will be bringing recruits who are on official visits to UT to the game. … Martin and Ray were assistants on coach Matt Painter’s staff at Purdue from 2006-08.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga