No. 5 Tennessee (19-11) vs. No. 13 Mississippi State (10-21)
Thursday, March 14, 3:30 p.m. ET
Bridgestone Arena (19,395) • Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads, 38-23 (6-3 in SEC tournament games)
Up next: Winner plays No. 4 Alabama on Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET
Probable Mississippi State Starters
F-Colin Borchert, 6-8, 231, JR, (8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
F-Gavin Ware, 6-9, 270, FR, (8.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg)
G-Trivante Bloodman, 6-0, 182, SO, (5.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
G-Fred Thomas, 6-5, 190, FR, (9.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
G-Craig Sword, 6-3, 190, FR, (10.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.3 apg)
Key Reserves: Tyson Cunningham (6-3, 195, JR); Roquez Johnson (6-7, 210, SO); Baxter Price (5-10, 170, SR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (12.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg, .529 FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (7.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
G-Armani Moore, 6-5, 205, FR, (2.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg,)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-5, 178, JR, (16.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, .372 3FG%)
G-Trae Golden, 6-2, 205, JR, (12.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.1 apg)
Key Reserves: Kenny Hall (6-9, 230, SR); Skylar McBee (6-3, 195, SR); Quinton Chievous (6-5, 200, RS FR); Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 250, SO); D’Montre Edwards (6-6, 206, JR)
The opening tip
In a battle of two teams in the basement of the SEC’s standings, Mississippi State outlasted South Carolina in the opening round of the SEC tournament on Wednesday night in a 70-59 win to set up Thursday’s game against the Vols.
The Tennessee coaching staff was in attendance and got the opportunity to have a first-hand look at the Bulldogs. It’ll be the second matchup between the Vols and Bulldogs this season. UT knocked off MSU 72-57 on Jan. 19 to earn its first SEC victory of the year after an 0-3 start in league play. Forward Jarnell Stokes scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in that contest. Guard Josh Richardson scored 16 points. Trae Golden (10) and Jordan McRae (12) also scored in double digits.
Knoxville native Jalen Steele, Mississippi State’s leading scorer against UT with 15, was lost for the season last week to a torn ACL. He’s one of four Bulldogs who has gone down for the year – leaving them with just eight available players.
That could be a factor tomorrow with the Bulldogs playing two games within a 20-hour span against a well-rested and deeper Tennessee squad.
Under the leadership of first-year coach Rick Ray, a former colleague of Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin at Purdue, the shorthanded Bulldogs struggled through league play, but did find some momentum at the end of the season. They enter Thursday’s contest having won three of their last four, including a 73-67 victory of in-state rival and potential NCAA tournament team Ole Miss on March 2.
It’s hard to consider this game anything less than a must-win contest for Tennessee. Winning won’t do a lot for its NCAA tournament stock, but a loss to a team with an RPI of 232 could be fatal to UT’s tenuous tournament status.
Martin’s thoughts on the competition in the SEC tournament:
"Obviously the favorite is Florida – they are the No. 1 seed, they have the parts, but it is anybody’s game at the end of the day. Anytime you are in a setting like this, unless you have an elite team where it is just tough to beat them, making your free throws, a couple baskets here and there, not turning the ball over, anything can happen."
Tennessee is 60-48 all time in the SEC tournament. … A win on Thursday will give Martin his 100th career win, give the Vols a 20-win season and make Tennessee winners in nine of its last 10 games. … UT and MSU last met in the NCAA tournament in the 2009 championship game with the Bulldogs winning 64-61. … Martin is 5-0 this season against first-year head coaches in the league. … Tennessee is 7-5 all-time in SEC tournament games played in Nashville.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga