NOTE: This scouting report is written under the assumption that TyTy Washington will not play against Mississippi State. I do not have any information that this will be the case, but given how Calipari has handled similar injuries in the past, I am assuming he will not go. If he does play, it will be a very happy surprise for the Big Blue Nation. A lot of this report will still hold, but with TyTy in the game, some of the individual matchups in the backcourt that I noted would change. With that being said, we can begin...
After falling in a tough battle to Auburn this past weekend, playing Mississippi State is a great opportunity for the Cats to get back on track with a quality win.
Playing Mississippi State is is also a great opportunity for me to share my favorite DeMarcus Cousins moment.
Mississippi State is not getting any major national attention and is not seen as a team anyone really needs to be worried about. They are 45th in the NET, 44nd in KenPom, and didn't receive any votes for this week's AP Poll. However, they hold a solid 13-5 record, and are tied with Kentucky in conference play at 4-2.
A pattern has emerged for the Bulldogs, with them winning every SEC game at home (Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss) and losing every SEC game on the road (Ole Miss, Florida). Let's hope this trend continues, especially considering Kentucky will be Mississippi State's most difficult matchup of the year to date.
The Bulldogs are lead by Iverson Molinar, their leading scorer from the previous season, and a haul of 4 big name transfers: DJ Jeffries, Garrison Brooks, Shakeel Moore, and Rocket Watts.
While Kentucky waits to find out whether TyTy Washington will be able to play or not, Mississippi State got the bad news that their starting center and second leading scorer, Tolu Smith, has been ruled out vs Kentucky with a knee injury. When he missed time earlier in the season, the Bulldogs moved Brooks to the center position, and played sophomore Cameron Matthews as a "stretch four", which I expect them to do again.
Iverson Molinar is the lead ball handler, captain, and overall best player for the Bulldogs. Molinar joins TyTy Washington and Alabama's Jahvon Quinerly as the only players to rank top 10 in the SEC in both points and assists. He also has scored 10+ points in all 18 of his games so far this season.
He reminds me of Scottie Pippen Jr of Vanderbilt for two reasons:
He is more of a "combo guard" than a true point guard, meaning he will do a lot of the primary ball handling and playmaking, but will be primarily hunting a shot for himself, rather than looking to create for teammates.
He is a slash first guard, but is more than capable and willing to step outside the arc and pull up from deep.
While he does have good size for a guard, I would still matchup Sahvir Wheeler against him due to Wheeler's aggressive on ball defense and ability to stay in front of his defender. If we can prevent Molinar from penetrating off of the dribble, Mississippi State's half court offense will go stagnant and struggle.
DJ Jeffries is a name that might sound very familiar to some Kentucky fans, because he was briefly committed to Kentucky in our 2019 recruiting class. The former 5 star decommitted to later join the glorified AAU program known as Memphis. When his talents were inevitably misused leading to his draft stock plummeting and missing consecutive NCAA tournaments, he entered his name in the transfer portal and joined Mississippi State.
Jeffries has good size and strength, but primarily plays out on the perimeter in the 3 position. He is shooting career lows in FG% and 3PT%, which can be attributed to him shooting threes about 45% more frequently than the previous two seasons. On a good day, he might make a three pointer or two, but his offensive game really isn't that effective out on the perimeter. Let him settle for jump shots and he is not going to kill us.
Garrison Brooks is another name that might sound very familiar to some Kentucky fans, due to him playing 4 years for our rival, North Carolina. Brooks is also trying to develop a perimeter game as he only attempted 15 three pointers in his four years at North Carolina, but already has attempted 40 through 18 games this year. Similar to Jeffries, let the 6'9" 235 lbs forward shoot out on the perimeter and keep him out of the paint, and he will not kill you.
Brooks plays his best when he increases his motor, using his size and strength to dominate the lower post, and occasionally face up for a jump shot. As previously noted, Brooks will be moved over to the center, which may spark him to go back to his interior game. But with the way Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin have been playing in the paint as of late, and with the absence of Tolu Smith, I fully expect Kentucky to completely dominate this game down low.
Shakeel Moore will be the "X-factor" for Mississippi State if they want to try to steal a win in Rupp Arena. The transfer from North Carolina State leads Mississippi State in both 3 point attempts and makes on a solid 36% clip. Moore getting hot from 3 will be Mississippi State's most likely chance of having a dual threat alongside Molinar. It will also help space out the floor for guys like Molinar, Jeffries, and Brooks who, as previously mentioned, are most effective inside of the paint.
Moore also averages 2.0 steals per game this season and 2.8 steals per 40 minutes over his career. Especially with co-lead ball handler TyTy Washington out, swinging the turnover margin in favor of Mississippi State could put the Cats in a hole.
How does Kentucky win?
In the frontcourt, Kentucky needs to take advantage Mississippi State's bigs, which were already not that impressive, and are now also short-handed. Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin just need to continue to be their aggressive, energetic, and athletic selves.
I would also like to see Keion Brooks go to work in the low post or drive to the basket on the offensive end. His mid-range jump shot will be there for him all game, but he should be able to get 2-3 easy buckets down low if he is aggressive.
In the backcourt, someone needs to step up in the absence of TyTy Washington. Sahvir Wheeler, Kellan Grady, and Davion Mintz should be able to hold down the starting guard positions, but we cannot see lapses as they go deep into the bench as we have seen when Sahvir was injured. We don't need anyone to be TyTy Washington, but Dontaie Allen and Bryce Hopkins need to recreate some of his production in the aggregate (any Moneyball fans?).
We know that Dontaie Allen loves to play against Mississippi State. In the two matchups against them last year, Dontaie put up a career high 23 points twice on a combined 57% shooting from the field and 54% from three.
But I would especially like to see a breakout game from the freshman Bryce Hopkins. With Mississippi State's lack of quickness on the wing plus their lack of strength down low, Bryce's game can cause a serious mismatch. He likes to drive straight towards the basket with a quick first step and is a very strong finisher. I see him being able to get to the paint consistently, make shots through the weaker interior defense, and also draw fouls to get a few trips to the line.
Game Notes and Prediction
Kentucky is back in Rupp Arena with a late start of 9:00 pm ET. If you are watching from the comfort of your home, the game will be televised on ESPN, and hopefully not be cut out by a bunch of fouls and timeouts from the game before.
I predict Kentucky wins 79-63, lead by a game high 20 points from Davion Mintz and a new career high 14 points from Bryce Hopkins.