Mississippi State (13-5, 3-2 SEC) leaves home with a measure of momentum after consecutive victories at Humphrey Coliseum. Wins over both Texas A&M (81-72 overtime) and Auburn (82-74) have pushed the Bulldog conference record over .500 for the first time since last January…which was also the last time Coach Rick Ray's team won consecutive league games.
Even better to some Bulldog minds is the progress showing in their second season with Ray. "Last year we won four games in conference," senior forward Colin Borchert said. "We're 3-2, so let's keep moving on to our next game."
It's a big one for both teams even without the rivalry aspect. Ole Miss is also 13-5 on their season, but is 4-1 in league play. That lone loss was to Mississippi State in a 76-72 fracas at Humphrey Coliseum which obviously adds incentive for this weekend's home team. Since then the Rebels have beaten LSU in overtime, and earned wins at South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The lone common league opponent is Auburn which Ole Miss edged 65-62.
But, that was a different Rebel roster. Very different, because Ole Miss opened SEC season with their top shot sidelined. It's no coincidence they are 3-0 since Marshall Henderson's suspension ended. The volatile guard hasn't led his team in scoring all three games or even shot that well at times. But there is no denying his impact on defensive mindsets every single series.
Currently tied for fifth in SEC overall scoring, Henderson contributes 18.7 points-per with 65 made-treys. And almost 80% of his shots this season are from beyond the arc; since he makes 38% of them it is an acceptable ratio. The Bulldogs didn't have to account for him two weeks ago; now, "It changes their team," Ray agreed.
"Because they've got a guy who is a focal point of their offense. And he cuts so hard for 30, 35 minutes a game." Ray admires that all-out effort and even uses it as an example to his own players. "They say they need a sub, I say he doesn't get subbed!"
A beneficial consequence of Henderson's selected absences is how the rest of the Rebel roster developed out of necessity. It makes them an even better-balanced ball club as guard Jarvis Summers has come into his own, averaging 17.9 points and presenting another sort of matchup challenge. Where Marshall runs around the perimeter Summers thrives in the mid-range, a largely-lost art these days. As a result makes over half his total attempts. He also draws lots of fouls and makes good at the line 78% of the time.
So for the rematch, "Now you've got Summers who is a really good player but a secondary guy," Ray said. "So it's pick your poison with how you defend them." On top of this young guard Derrick Millinghaus (9.4 points, 18 treys) is comfortable putting up his own shots. And while they aren't getting big scoring numbers Aaron Jones and Sebastian Saiz are having big impacts on the boards with almost 14 rebounds between them.
And of course, they will be playing to friendly fans for a change. "They're going to have the crowd on their back," Borchert said. "So we're looking forward to going up there and playing."
None of the current Bulldogs have played in a win at Smith Coliseum, where the last victory came in 2011. State has had historical success there, in fact the 43 wins in Oxford are the most of any road-rivalry for Bulldog basketball. And overall State has won 22 of the last 31 meetings whatever the locale.
Mississippi State hits the road with momentum in more than the record. Ray's team has picked up its offensive pace with over 80 points in consecutive wins, where they shot over 50%...which hasn't happened since 2011. Through five SEC contests this team is tied—with Ole Miss—for third in league scoring at 72.6 points.
That stat is interesting for a few reasons. This offensive improvement has come the harder way, because the Bulldogs still bring up the rear in outside scoring. They have just 20 treys in five games, last in the league. So the points have to be earned.
"I think our guys have bought into who they are," Ray says, perhaps still a bit hopefully. "We've talked about we aren't a good shooting team or three point shooting team. But that's not the only way to score." As State proves by pounding the paint first with center Gavin Ware (11.1 ppg) and forward Rocquez Johnson (9.8). The team's two true frontcourt players are a combined 44-of-78 shooting; where Borchert mixes inside moves with the outside shots as presented.
The difficulty of course is that Ware and Johnson are simpler to scheme for, whether double-teams or zones. Also, fans and foes both know that Ware is bench-bound when the first or at most second foul is called. So if the long-range shooting isn't available, what to do? Attack, says Ray. Just as they did an Auburn team that zoned full-time, either 2-3 or 2-2-1 or whatever.
The twist was, usually it is guard Craig Sword (14.5 ppg) slashing at zones. He had just six points against the Tigers, and Ware was sidelined by fouls for long stretches. State won because Auburn still had to respect Sword's potential attacks and that left Johnson one-on-one inside while Borchert worked inside/out. Guards Fred Thomas and Trivante Bloodman raised their own offensive games, and forward Tyson Cunningham gave the timely substitute-support at the right time.
So gradually Ray's short roster is finding ways to make points, especially one of them at a time because the Bulldogs are drawing fouls and cashing-in at the line. The scored over 30% of the points in the last two wins on free throws in fact. Though of course counting on road-game whistles is not a wise gameplan.
Ray would rather his team set up scoring series with defensive stops. X-and-Oing is fine, "But our big things is we have to get out and attack in transition," the coach said. "And if we can't get stops we can't run." Running is even easier when the opponents can't get off a shot, and State is second-best in SEC (and 26th nationally) in steals with almost nine thefts each outing.
There is another potential difference to this rematch. While Ole Miss is full-strength, State may be short a player from the first meeting. Freshman point guard IJ Ready has missed two games with a concussion suffered January 15 and as of Friday morning there was no update to his status. In his first test against the Rebels, Ready was 4-of-6 shooting with 10 points and four assists.
But then the Bulldogs have gotten used to short rosters and making the most of who is available. It's worked three times on the home court, now they look to get the job done in a hostile setting. Besides, "Playing Ole Miss is going to be motivation itself," said Borchert.