“It’s the biggest game of the year, for Mississippi State, as it is for Ole Miss,” Howland said.
Howland’s Bulldogs try to get on the better side of a SEC scoreboard again by hosting Ole Miss. Tipoff is 1:05 in Humphrey Coliseum for the SEC Network.
The Bulldogs bring a 7-10 record, a 0-5 conference record, and lots of pent-up frustrations into Saturday. They are coming off another close loss, as Florida regained the lead and held it in the final minute Tuesday for an 81-78 decision. State’s last three defeats have come by a combined 14 points. The coach chooses to see this as reason for squad optimism.
“We haven’t had a win yet but we haven’t been blown out,” Howland said. “We’ve had a chance in every game. They know we’re right there.”
The Dogs do know how close they’ve come. They are also trying to treat it as positive rather than assuming bounces will keep going the wrong way. Besides, hosting the rival is sure to keep everyone focused per guard Craig Sword.
“Nothing else is important to us. Even though we’ve been losing this game is going to be the most important one.”
It is at least as important for the visiting team, if not more so as the Rebels have some post-season ambitions. Ole Miss is 12-6, 2-4, and coming off a close call of their own at home. #24 South Carolina rallied to force overtime before escaping 77-74. That loss shouldn’t damage the RPI too badly, but the Rebel roster has taken some hits.
Forward Sebastian Saiz (12.8ppg, 9.8rpg) missed the South Carolina game with injury and is not listed in the starting lineup as of today. Howland doesn’t read too much into that right now. “Saiz is a really good player, I’m really impressed having watched him on film. I’m sure he’ll be back.” Without the 6-9 sophomore, Ole Miss went more zone-defense than usual and led the Gamecocks by double-digits in stretches.
Of more interest to MSU and media alike is the status of guard Stefan Moody, the hottest shot in the SEC and maybe the country. Moody is averaging 24.3 points and hasn’t scored under twenty since November 22. The 5-10 guard is in range once across half-court and hits 37% of his trey tries.
“Moody is a fantastic player, the leading scorer in the league,” Howland said. “An incredible athlete combined with great skill. He’s also a very good passer and a great defender.”
Senior Bulldog Sword is more descriptive. “He’s been ridiculous. He’s been playing his best ball ever.”
Big guard Rasheed Brooks is averaging 10.3 points in SEC season, and if no other Rebel scores double-digits everybody can provide points in some fashion. Plus, Moody and Saiz do the work of two, even three on offense.
“We know they have some key guys that are banged up,” Howland said. “They’re still going to be tough to beat, they’re a very good team and well coached. We’re going to have to play our best to be successful.” Rebel teams own a four-win string in the series, with Mississippi State’s last win on January 11, 2014 at the Hump. Last season saw the first Ole Miss sweep of the regular-season since 1998.
The Bulldogs have had more than their share of injury issues all season, or for that matter going back to preseason. Recent weeks have been less-stressful as far as health, though Howland said Sword did not practice yesterday with a shoulder labrum issue.
“I’m going to be alright,” said Sword, insisting he’d play.
Mississippi State can be alright if all Dogs are playing. The real story from Florida was that despite losing the whole frontcourt, starting and backup, to fouls, the Bulldogs had the lead and the ball in the late going. This despite a five-point night from center Gavin Ware who lasted just 15 minutes and took only three shots.
That snapped Ware’s streak of double-digit scoring at 16 games, second-longest in program history. “I didn’t realize that,” Howland said. Ware (16.4ppg, 7.6rpg) is making a SEC-best 65% of his shots, he just needs to be on the floor long enough to take them Howland figures.
“He’s got to stay out of foul trouble. But we’ve got to get him more involved.” And if not shooting, then drawing fouls from the other team. “It’s good for us because he’s shooting more than 80% from the foul line.”
One of those fouled-out frontcourt Dogs, freshman Aric Holman, still is not making much impact on the stat sheet. But he is gradually gaining endurance since his late-December activation, and soon should be doing more than eating minutes so Ware can rest. He even got his first SEC points at Florida, with one basket in three tries.
Moving classmate and guard Quindarry Weatherspoon into the lineup, as a forward, was expediency at first. If the freshman continues his play as a starter though he can lock-down a spot even if at 6-4 he can’t fit a ‘forward’ profile. After scoring 23 points against Tennessee in his first college start he came back with 6-of-11 shooting at Florida for 14 points. The rookie has also been good at the foul line, another reason to let him play in traffic.
Still State will be at a size disadvantage for tomorrow’s tipoff. After Moody, the Rebel lineup stands 6-5, 6-7, 6-9, and 6-9 and that’s without Saiz. It’s another challenge for a Bulldog club that is already giving up too many rebounds in SEC play, at each end.
These Dogs will try to avoid giving up consecutive home losses to Ole Miss for the first time since 1982-83.