“I love winning right now. It feels great going into a tournament.”
Let’s set the tournament talk aside for a few more days. Right now, Mississippi State plays the final week of the regular schedule just for the chance to add a couple more Ws. Their next chance is Wednesday evening, at Ole Miss (6:00, SEC Network).
This trip to Oxford completes the annual season series, after Mississippi State beat the Rebels 83-77 back on January 23. “I’m very excited to go there and play, just with it being a rivalry,” said freshman guard Malik Newman. “And I think the guys are amped-up to play, the fans are excited about it. Hopefully the whole team can have a good game.”
This likely is a good time to settle a winner for the Howell Trophy, given to the state’s top collegian. A pair of Bulldogs at opposite ends of their careers made the three finalists, senior center Gavin Ware and freshman guard Quinndary Weatherspoon. The third finalist, and likely favorite, will be on the other roster in Stefan Moody, the SEC’s scoring leader at 22.8 points per game.
The Rebel guard ought have more motivation for the rematch than just a state award, too. Moody missed the first meeting with injury, as did forward Sebastian Saiz. “The two leading scorers,” noted MSU Coach Ben Howland. Also sidelined was forward Martavious Newby, the team’s top defender and a force on the backboards.
Howland doesn’t deny how those three absences impacted round-one. “We were fortunate to win that game. I think we’ve improved from that point. Obviously we’re going to be in for the test of our lives on the road.”
Ole Miss (18-11, 8-8 SEC) has been quite good at home with a 11-2 record. They are even better with a full-strength roster and on track for some sort of post-season play, likely the NIT. For that matter given the jumbled SEC standings with two games left for everyone, the Rebels can end up tied for third place at next week’s league tournament. Or, fall as far as maybe ninth or tenth depending on the tiebreak twists and turns.
Regardless, the Bulldogs know they will see a whole ‘nother team this time around. “I think they’re much different,” said Newman, most of all with Moody on the court. “He’s probably one of the best players in the conference in terms of scoring the ball, they do a great job of getting him open and running their sets through him.”
For his part Newman has good reason to remember the first meeting. It produced his best output of the entire freshman season with 25 points, 21 of those coming on made treys as Newman was 7-of-10 at the arc. Since then though Newman (11.6 ppg, 38.5 fg%) has struggled with injuries and inconsistency. He has had only three double-digit points games out of the nine he played, and has missed another whole contest. Newman went scoreless in 16 minutes last Saturday during State’s win over South Carolina.
A bad back the last two weeks has hampered Newman, coming after the early-season turf toe recovery and a knee issue during SEC season.
“It’s been very frustrating. But it’s part of the game, something I can’t worry about.” Howland has seen the frustration too, especially with Newman’s outside shot. Yet the rookie has stayed to the script and according to the coach improved his defense greatly lately.
Fellow freshman Weatherspoon by contrast has practically taken charge offensively. Though only third in team scoring for the full year, Weatherspoon is the leader in SEC play at 14.8 ppg. He’s also knocked down 40% of his league-game three-point attempts after making just nine longballs in pre-SEC action.
Ware is still the all-season scoring leader at 15.6 points, though he’s at 13.9 and 55% shooting in league play. Howland is still juggling minutes for his only post player, getting more and shorter breaks. The same holds for still-young Weatherspoon and point guard IJ Ready, for that matter.
“It’s a fine line taking our best players out to get them rest, or rolling the dice that they’ll be there at the end of the game.” For three weeks now Howland has rolled winners more often.
One reason though is the Dog who doesn’t leave the court save for fouls. Sword is taking charge at the end of his season and career. The last four games he’s averaged 16.3 points and shot 52%, and it’s no coincidence State has won three of those games with a two-point loss in the other at league co-leader Texas A&M.
“Chicken the last month has played his best at both ends of the floor,” Howland said. “He’s having fun.”
A Wednesday win would be really fun, as State hasn’t scored one in Oxford since 2011. This is the SEC’s most-played rivalry, with State holding a 142-111 edge.
Senior Day for Sword, Ware, guard Fred Thomas, forward Travis Daniels, and forward Johnny Zuppardo is Saturday with a 1:30 tipoff against Auburn.