MSU at Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE — Steven Hill jumped in first, his 7-foot frame moving in a hurry, and others quickly followed.

The Arkansas Razorbacks didn't appreciate the hard foul Mississippi State's Charles Rhodes put on point guard Gary Ervin. And they really didn't savor the choice words Rhodes had for Ervin, his former teammate in Starkville, Miss.

So with tempers flaring all over the Bud Walton Arena court last February, the Hogs stuck up for their teammate in a sign of solidarity. The incident, which stopped short of a fight, also signified one other undeniable fact.

Arkansas-Mississippi State is now a full-fledged rivalry.

"I would say that. I would say that, for sure," said Ervin, who played his first two seasons at Mississippi State. "These last few years, it's been real heated. And there wasn't just that one scuffle. Eric Ferguson and Jonathon Modica got into it with (Mississippi State's) Jamont Gordon a couple of years ago.

"It's a heated rivalry right about now."

The next chapter in Arkansas' newest rivalry takes place tonight as the Razorbacks hope to begin the process of chasing down the Bulldogs in the SEC West standings. The Hogs will do so without Charles Thomas, the senior forward who has been suspended by first-year coach John Pelphrey, but they didn't sound worried earlier this week.

They believe the stakes of tonight's game in Bud Walton Arena, and their disdain for the Bulldogs, will provide enough motivation to cancel out the loss of Thomas.

"It's a big enough game as it is," Hill said. "We don't want them to take a three-game lead on us in the division. But we've developed something pretty intense there with them, especially last year. We had three intense games against them last year."

Arkansas would like to forget the first, an 84-60 loss in Starkville. But Mississippi State would like to wipe its memories from the last two. Arkansas rallied after the near-brawl in Fayetteville for a 67-58 win and later defeated the Bulldogs in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

The last Arkansas victory sent Mississippi State to the NIT and the Razorbacks to the NCAA Tournament. So the rivalry is far from one-sided in the mind of Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado.

"I think it's grown into one," Varnado said. "They kept us out of the (NCAA) tournament last year. We're just looking to take out some revenge on them."

Some might think Ervin's out for revenge, as well. After all, the fifth-year senior had a falling out with Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury that resulted in him leaving the school.

But Ervin said playing the Bulldogs isn't personal anymore. He's tired of all the questions that come his way the days before an Arkansas-Mississippi State battle. And even though he helped show Gordon and Rhodes around on their recruiting trips to Starkville, Ervin insists tonight is just another night in the SEC.

"It's the most important game for us, but only because it's the next game on the schedule and because they lead the division," Ervin said. "This is one of those games that can make or break your season."

TODAY'S TICKET

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT ARKANSAS

WHEN: 7:05 p.m. TV: Raycom (Cox Ch. 7)

WHERE: Bud Walton Arena

RECORDS: Mississippi State 14-5, 5-0 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas 14-5, 3-2

RADIO: KXIO-FM 106.9; KEZA-FM 107.9; KKEG-FM 92.1; KFPW-AM 1230; KQBK-FM 104.7; KHGG-AM 1580; KHGG-FM 103.1; KDYN-AM 1540; KDYN-FM 96.7; KTTG-FM 96.3

COACHES: Mississippi State, Rick Stansbury (199-109, 10th season; 199-109, 10 seasons); Arkansas, John Pelphrey (13-5, 1st season; 93-72, 6 seasons)

SERIES: Arkansas leads 25-18 (15-3 in Fayetteville)

LAST MEETING: Arkansas beat Mississippi State 81-72 on Mar. 10, 2007 in Atlanta in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

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