"Biggest Game Of Season" For Bulldogs

The SEC’s oldest roundball rivalry resumes, with Mississippi State hosting Ole Miss in a Thursday rematch. If the annual intra-state series doesn’t move the meter much beyond the borders, what about natives like Gavin Ware? “If you aren’t ready for the game you need to have your heart checked.”

Ware and Co. expect a serious check-up when Ole Miss (17-8, 8-4 SEC) arrives at Humphrey Coliseum. Tipoff is 8:00 for ESPN2.

When the rivals last met, in Oxford three weeks ago, it was the home team having heart issues much of the evening. Mississippi State led for nearly 24 game-minutes and took an edge into the closing stretch before the Rebels survived 79-73. Since then Ole Miss has found a place well up in the conference race for second place.

The Bulldogs used that close road loss as a springboard to consecutive wins as well. Now Coach Rick Ray’s club stands 12-13 and 5-7 SEC, coming off a victory at Missouri. That one snapped a two-loss string where State did not play well at all, so Ray has renewed optimism again.

“It was good to get a road win, that’s the most road wins we’ve had in four years. And the most wins we’ve had in the SEC since I’ve been here. So I’m happy the guys are continuing to making strides.”

Five league victories is a sign of progress, with six more regular-season opportunities to be better. Perhaps even finish break-even both overall and for a SEC schedule. Both would affirm the program has found its footing.

At the same time…rivalry games have an out-sized impact on perception. For good and ill alike. So coach and club alike understand Thursday’s stakes.

“This is one of the biggest games of the season for us,” said guard Fred Thomas, another state native.

If by no means a rivalry, beating league cellar-dweller Missouri was pretty big in other ways. Ray was pleased his players bounced back from bad losses to blow it open in the first half, then hold on for a three-point final.

“But Ole Miss has more weapons than Missouri,” Ray said. Lots more, beginning with veteran guard Jarvis Summer who had a 22-point night in the last meeting. Over half his points came at the foul line when State couldn’t guard him straight-up.

“He doesn’t get sped-up, once you pressure him he stays calm and makes the right decision,” Ray said. That’s an obvious problem for a State defense that wants to pressure the ball. ----- Moody was off his aim a month ago but remains a real three-point threat. “But the guy that doesn’t get a lot of respect is Snoop White,” Ray said. “His three-point percentage is way up.”

“So they have three guys on the perimeter that are legitimate threats. And Andy (Kennedy) tells his bigs when they get done helping-off to become scoring threats. So they put you in a bind on defense.” Ray pointed to proof of this in Ole Miss’ lopsided free throw totals, showing how hard the Rebels are to guard without contact.

Defensively the Rebels will mix up zones but suddenly switch into man. “You don’t really get in a rhythm on the offensive end,” Ray said.

Of course offensive rhythm has been State’s challenge regardless of opponent. For a five-game stretch the Bulldogs were averaging over 70 points; not great even by SEC standards but still encouraging. Then bad (re: turnovers) habits returned and the scoring plummeted. So putting up 77 on the road might mean trending upwards again.

Plus, as Ray said, for a second time this SEC season his team nipped a losing streak before one really began. That too counts as progress.

“When you’re playing in a conference like the SEC you’re going to lose two games in a row. What you can’t have is a situation fester to lose four and five games.” Ray credits a measure of natural maturing by the team, as well as having more bodies to work with so slumping players don’t have to stay on the floor.

Though, as of Monday the coach wasn’t sure increasingly-valuable backup post Oliver Black would be back for Ole Miss. The freshman missed Missouri with concussion symptoms from a practice collision. “If he has no headaches he can progress and be cleared.”

At Missouri, point guard IJ Ready was back on better form. He only scored seven points to be sure but picked his shots and spots well. Plus, Ray said, “He might have had the biggest play in the game when he split the zone to find Roques Johnson for that dunk. His willingness to put his head in at crunch time is huge.”

Ole Miss is a tougher matchup for Ready. So State can hope to get similar production at home to what guard Craig Sword had at Oxford, with 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting and five made treys. Sword had 22 points at Missouri and got to the foul line twelve times.

It will be Sword and Thomas giving the physical backcourt presence State needs in this matchup. Thomas also wants to make up for a bad night at Oxford, scoreless in 27 minutes with six missed trey-tries. If Black can’t go, Ware (10.0ppg, 7.3rpg) will likely have to last longer as backup post Fallou Ndoye’s minutes have dropped dramatically in SEC season.

The Bulldogs also need Johnson to be, well, his best self. In the first meeting the senior forward took only three shots, making two. The Ole Miss frontcourt’s size and length provide less baseline room than Johnson likes, but he’ll just have to find a way to work.

After their adventures returning from Missouri, low-lighted by an unplanned landing after takeoff and Sunday bus ride home, the Bulldogs do catch some sort of break. They don’t play Tuesday or Wednesday for a change. Ray was able to make up for the normal off-day by having a shorter Monday practice and weights session, before getting back on script Tuesday.

State also has a three-game homestand ahead. But, the visitors are arch-rival Ole Miss, then on Saturday an Arkansas club that whipped the Dogs by 20 points a week ago. And next Wednesday brings unbeaten and at the amateur level likely-unbeatable Kentucky. It’s not breaking news to say the best chance of scoring a victory in this stand is the first game.

And of course, if a Bulldog team could only have one of them…squaring the series would seem an obvious choice. Ray’s two previous teams both defended the home court, after all. Besides, the coach said, “You don’t want to go through whole the summer knowing you got swept by your rival.”

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