December 15, 2017 10:38:17 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- For the first time in Mississippi State's men's basketball season, its offensive formula went awry Tuesday night. Now it only has four games to figure out its next step before the rigors of Southeastern Conference play.
Tuesday's 65-50 loss to Cincinnati leaves MSU (8-1) at an offensive crossroads of sorts as it prepares to host Tennessee-Martin (3-7) 7 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network+) at Humphrey Coliseum. MSU has been one of the nation's most efficient 2-point shooting teams in the nation, but without effective 3-point shooting to offset it, MSU has left itself vulnerable to certain schemes. Cincinnati proved it.
"Today we were really inept attacking their zone," MSU coach Ben Howland said after the Cincinnati game. "We really didn't expect to see zone on the first possession of the game. They haven't played a lot of it coming in to today. They played more of it than we've seen against anybody, against Florida in their last game, but I was a little surprised. So it's my fault, we have to do a better job in our preparation and we have to get better in our zone attack."
Through the eight consecutive wins leading into the Cincinnati game, MSU didn't need the perimeter threat to balance inside scoring. On 2-point attempts, it shot better than 54 percent in each game, shooting better than 60 percent half the time and getting as high as 72 percent (18-25) in the win over Stephen F. Austin. For context, the national average on 2-point shots entering Thursday was 50 percent.
The offense was far from one of the nation's most prolific, but still good enough to be in the top half nationally according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced numbers. It was even good enough to win eight straight when combined with a defense that is holding opponents to 42.4 percent shooting on 2-pointers (20th in the nation) and 31.3 on 3-pointers (66th in the nation.)
Then Cincinnati complicated things with the aforementioned zone. MSU shot only 31 percent on its 2-point attempts and did not have the 3-point shooting to offset it, going 6-for-21 (28.6 percent). After that showing, MSU's 3-point shooting percentage (29.7) ranks 315th in the nation out of 351 Division I teams.
Granted, that does come against the second-best 2-point defense in the nation, as the Bearcats have held opponents to 37.8 percent shooting inside the arc. Still, MSU's Southeastern Conference schedule will pose significant challenges for any offense that lacks a perimeter threat. Through Thursday, six SEC teams ranked in the national top 40 in 2-point defense and the SEC as a whole ranks as the fourth best league in the nation according to KenPom.
Howland is not blind to the team need.
"Cincinnati is like an upper echelon SEC team, so it's very similar," he said. "We've got to play better and the bottom line it we get back Thursday and Friday (in practice), it's going to be all offense, working against the zone when we're doing offensive stuff."
In search of offense, Howland could turn to the bench. MSU's bench did not score a point against Cincinnati while going 0-for-20 from the floor.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson