Long SEC Road Begins In Starkville For Hogs

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Mississippi State lists three freshmen in its starting lineup and leading scorer Jamall Edmondson has been out with a groin injury, but don't shed any tears for Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury.

"I really think if our team was healthy, we might have a chance to be pretty good," Stansbury said. "We have good young players, but just no consistency right now."

The Bulldogs (10-3) open Southeastern Conference play tonight against Arkansas (11-2) in 10,500-seat Humphrey Coliseum, where the Razorbacks have gotten blown out in recent years.

Hogs coach Stan Heath is sensitive to reminders of Arkansas' dismal SEC road record the past three years and would like to turn the page, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Hump.

"I believe over the course of 40 minutes we have a good chance of getting out of there with a victory," Heath said. "But it's going to take a great effort."

Arkansas should match up well defensively against what has evolved into a guard-oriented Mississippi State offense.

"Their offense used to be about 80 percent inside," Heath said. "Now I see it 60-40 in favor of their guard play. They're attacking more with their guards now. For our team, Dontell Jefferson and Eric Ferguson are dynamite defenders at guard."

Edmondson, a 5-foot-9 senior Bulldogs blur, averages a team-leading 14.5 points but has missed two games with a pulled groin.

"Jamall hasn't done anything since Dec. 22," Stansbury said. "We had to bring him back too early when Richard Delk got hurt, because we had no other point guard."

Delk, nephew of former Kentucky star Tony Delk and the twin brother of fellow Bulldogs starting guard Reginald Delk, missed the first seven games of the season with a stress reaction in his right foot.

Dietric Slater, another Bulldogs guard, averages 10.2 points off the bench -- third on the team behind Edmondson and 6-4 forward Jamont Gordon.

Of the Mississippi State inside players, 6-8 sophomore forward Charles Rhodes has the highest scoring average at 9.4, while 7-2 senior center Wesley Morgan averages 6.2 points and 8.1 rebounds.

Morgan will peer down at 7-foot Hogs center Steven Hill, who has been bothered by a bone bruise on his right arm this week.

Arkansas is otherwise healthy except for a sprained ankle suffered by 6-10 sophomore Vincent Hunter in practice this week.

Heath has hopes that Hunter would be able to move well enough to play some tonight if needed.

Mississippi State has three freshmen averaging 30-plus minutes per game -- which will surely pay dividends someday.

"We're learning every game, every possession," Stansbury said. "I'd like to be farther along, but we don't have enough veterans to lead our freshmen. The freshmen don't know what they're getting into."

Stansbury is expected to follow the lead of other teams that have played zone defense against Arkansas this season.

The Razorbacks haven't exactly shredded teams from 3-point range (.346 to their opponents' .371), but Heath is keeping a stiff upper lip.

"I think our players like playing against zones," Heath said. "I know Ronnie Brewer does, because he doesn't get face-guarded."

Brewer leads Arkansas with 18.3 points and 3.3 steals per game.

"Ronnie has had to make a few adjustments this season, but he's handling it tremendously," Heath said on an SEC teleconference call Thursday. "His value to our team is not just scoring. He rebounds, gets assists and plays defense. He's still valuable, whether he scores 20 or 10. He's always been a fun kid to coach, an easy kid to coach."

Senior guard Jonathon Modica, Arkansas' second-leading scorer at 13.8, has also proved coachable this season after two up-and-down years.

"It feels good to bounce back from two critical losses in Maui and win nine straight," Modica said. "We're happy for coach Heath. Hopefully our team can keep bringing the Ws."

Heath cited two factors in what he hopes will continue to be a strong season for Arkansas.

"One, we're an older team," he said. "This is the first year we haven't started two freshmen. We've all been to Starkville, and our opponent is a little different from a year ago."

(Mississippi State lost its top six scorers.)

"Two, our schedule has been tougher," Heath said. "We've played Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri and Texas Tech. That's night-and-day different from a year ago."

Heath defended what some have called a soft schedule played by Mississippi State this season.

"Their schedule was geared to their younger team," he said. "We took the same approach when we were younger."

Most recently, the Bulldogs have nipped Holy Cross 76-75 and edged George Mason 63-61. If nothing else, they've shown themselves they can win close games.

So can the Hogs, who are 4-0 in games decided by four points or fewer.

The SEC race figures to be a rip-snorter, with Florida coming out of the woodwork unbeaten; Kentucky getting Randolph Morris back, Tennessee surprising under new coach Bruce Pearl, and the SEC West appearing to be wide open at the top.

"It says a lot for our league when the team picked fifth or sixth in the East (Tennessee) can go beat Texas," Pearl chirped.

Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said Thursday that Ole Miss (10-3) is better than it was last year. To which Rebels coach Rod Barnes had to chuckle.

LSU (8-4) lost guard Tack Minor to a knee injury and Alabama is muddling along at 7-5 against a tough schedule.

"I wish we'd played the same schedule and won a few more," Gottfried joked.

Pearl said Morris' return to Kentucky after 14 games would have a "tremendous impact" on the SEC race.

"The day it was announced, Kentucky became a better team overnight," Pearl said. "They beat Louisville that night."

Arkansas can't win the SEC West race tonight, but it could strike a blow by winning at Starkville for the first time since 2000.

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