GAME OF THE WEEK
- #11 Mississippi State at #6 Baylor, Wednesday, 8 PM CT in Dallas (ESPN2)
At 12-0 and fresh off a Las Vegas Classic sweep of St. Mary’s and West Virginia, there’s not a whole lot left for Baylor to prove. The 6th-ranked Bears seem to have it all: dominant bigs, freakish athleticism, terrific dunkers and, most importantly, steady guard play. Junior college All-American Pierre Jackson, Boston College transfer Brady Heslip and junior A.J. Walton have formed a strong trio in the backcourt, and they’re helping Perry Jones and the crew lead the way in the paint. Cal transfer Gary Franklin has also impressed since gaining eligibility, as he’s turned the ball over just once in four games. That’s a striking contrast from last season, when Scott Drew wasted a boatload of NBA talent due to poor guard play and other issues. Baylor still has some work to do in the rebounding department, and it also turns the ball over a bit too much at times. But those are kinks Drew will work out during the course of the season, and they shouldn’t hold Baylor back against Mississippi State. In many ways, the Bulldogs are a mirror image of Baylor. They have a dangerous frontcourt duo in Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney, but Rick Stansbury’s guards have stepped up to help the Bulldogs to a 12-1 start. Dee Bost may be this team’s most important player as both a scorer and leader of the offense, and it’s going to be up to him to make smart decisions on a semi-neutral floor in Dallas tonight. Let’s not be silly here, though. This game will be won in the paint, and it all depends on which stars show up to play. Jones had a lot of questions to answer this season after a somewhat disappointing freshman season, but he has looked like a new man so far in 2011-12. That’s also an accurate description for Moultrie, who has embraced his role as the enforcer in Starkville after two modest seasons at UTEP. In his first year of eligibility, Moultrie has already recorded seven double-doubles, and he’s both getting to the line (6.0 attempts per game) and converting his free throws (88.3 percent). Against Jones, Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy and the other forwards with giant wingspans on the Baylor roster, Moultrie has a chance to prove his worth on national television.
The key individual matchup is… Dee Bost vs. A.J. Walton/Pierre Jackson/Gary Franklin. Jackson has not started a game this year, and Franklin just became eligible four games ago, but they’re both stealing time away from starter A.J. Walton at the point. It’s not a bad problem for Drew to have, since all three are playing reasonably well. It’s no secret who runs the show for Mississippi State, though. Dee Bost will likely attempt the most shots for the Bulldogs tonight, he’ll lead the team in assists and he will also be the most disruptive defensive presence on the floor. After all, he’s in the top-10 all-time in steals at Mississippi State, which means Walton, Jackson and Franklin better take care of the basketball. The elite forwards in this game cannot get to work unless the point guards play well. For Bost, that means taking good shots. When MSU plays well, it’s usually because Bost finds a groove and plays within the offense. But when Bost struggles– say, like his 2-9 effort in a loss to Akron or a 4-16 performance in a near-collapse at Detroit– this team is in trouble. It will be interesting to see who Drew leans on at his point guard spot. Franklin and Jackson actually played more minutes than Walton in the team’s overtime win against West Virginia, and Jackson starred in that game with 23 points and a tying three-point in the final minute.