CATEGORY: Basketball

AUTHOR: PARRIS

HED:It's now or never for MSU

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

MEMPHIS Signs all around the Pyramid say it's serving as host of the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament, but today's opening event could be a World Wrestling Federation steel cage match.

Mississippi State coach Richard Williams cited physical play as one reason his Bulldogs beat Vanderbilt 60-53 at Humphrey Coliseum Jan. 25. He hopes officials in today's rematch allow the same kind of bump and grind. The Bulldogs (12-17, 6-10 SEC), the defending tournament champions, and Commodores (18-10, 9-7) begin the tournament at noon.

"The first game was one of those games where the officiating crew allowed the game to played at a very physical level," Williams said. "We just out-wrestled them in the post, because that's what it was, a big wrestling match in the post.

"If the game (today) is called more closely than it was at our place, I'm not sure we're going to be able to get away with wrestling in the post. That was to our advantage that day because of our lack of depth and because Horatio (Webster) and Tyrone (Washington) are big, strong guys and they can get you locked up in the post if the officials don't call fouls."

Vanderbilt got to the free throw line only five times in the first game. The Commodores got 21 points from 6-9 center Austin Bates but had no other players in double figures.

Vanderbilt coach Jan van Breda Kolff made an offensive adjustment after that.

"We went to a five-man motion where we've utilized our big men to help screen on the ball like we did last year," van Breda Kolff said. "We've got our 1, 2 and 3 players more involved in the offense. Our shooting percentage and our points have really increased."

Not surprisingly the Commodores' fortunes have also increased. Vanderbilt has won seven of its last 10 games and has played itself into NCAA Tournament consideration.

Vanderbilt is the only team in the SEC with four players among the top 20 scorers. Forward Pax Whitehead leads the way with 15.8 points a game.

MSU got a big game from Webster (21 points, 13 rebounds) in the first meeting, but Webster had a combined 13 points in his last two games and hit only 5-of-20 from the field.

State, meanwhile, has lost seven of its last eight and is coming off a 29-point loss at Alabama. For the first time in four years, MSU's only postseason chance is to win the SEC Tournament.

Williams says his underdog Bulldogs won't be ready for the kennel at tip-off time.

"Any time you play, whether it's a pick-up game in the old gym in September, on the playground at home ... it's always been my attitude you should try to win," Williams said.

"If you're keeping score you should try to win."

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