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Mississippi State looks to bolster tourney resume against No. 19 Tennessee

Tennessee looks to have a spot in the NCAA Tournament sewed up, but Mississippi State will be playing to enhance its postseason chances when the two Southeastern Conference foes clash in Starkville, Miss., on Wednesday night.

The unranked Bulldogs (14-8, 5-4 SEC) have dropped three of their last four outings and squandered a chance to add a Quad 1 win to their credentials when they faded down the stretch of a 63-55 loss at Arkansas on Saturday.

But coach Ben Howland sees an opportunity coming up with games against the 19th-ranked Volunteers, LSU and Alabama -- the latter two on the road.

"The good news is, the next three games are against high-ranked, Quad 1 teams, all higher than Arkansas," Howland said. "We have our opportunities ahead of us. I think we're an NCAA Tournament team. We've just got to prove it by getting a win on the road and holding serve at home."

There was some good news for Mississippi State on Saturday, as 6-foot-11 forward Tolu Smith returned to the Bulldogs' lineup after sitting out the previous two weeks with a knee injury. He scored 11 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and blocked a shot against the Razorbacks. Smith has played only nine games, averaging 12.9 points and 6.6 rebounds.

"He's rested more in the last six weeks than he's been able to play," Howland said. "It is what it is."

All-conference candidate Iverson Molinar leads the Bulldogs in scoring with his 18.2 average. He scored 19 points against Arkansas (but on 7-of-18 shooting).

"He took a couple of ill-advised shots that he's got to be smarter about.," Howland said. "He had a great play to cut it down to three and battled hard."

Tennessee seems to have recovered quite nicely after the embarrassing 107-79 loss at Kentucky last month. The Volunteers (16-6, 7-3) have won five of their six outings since then with the only setback a 52-51 loss at Texas -- a game in which they rallied from 17 points down and missed a shot at the buzzer that would have won it.

They had a big second half in winning 81-57 at South Carolina on Saturday. Junior Josiah-Jordan James had a big hand, scoring a career-high 20 points after matching his earlier high of 14 points his previous outing against Texas A&M. He also added six rebounds, three blocks, three steals and two assists.

"He's a basketball player," coach Rick Barnes said. "He's going to do whatever he has to do to help his team win. Josiah has always been unselfish, sometimes to a fault."

Only a career 32-percent 3-point shooter, James is 8 of 18 from long range (44.4 percent) the last three games.

"I think a lot of people early in the year questioned him and I told him early I think you're rushing it," Barnes said. "You've gotten off to a tough start. Just play with the flow."

--Field Level Media

Updated February 7, 2022

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