Mississippi State finishes month-one of SEC season by visiting Ole Miss. Tuesday’s tipoff in the Pavilion is 6:00 for SEC Network.
Ben Howland has had only one year’s exposure to this intra-state affair. That is enough. “Ole Miss-Mississippi State, that’s what it’s all about,” the coach said.
“That’s why you come to Mississippi State, to beat Ole Miss. That’s what makes athletics, these intense rivalries. It raises your level of play.”
Mississippi State needs some raising. Fast. A loss at Alabama was the third defeat in four games leaving the Bulldogs 13-7 and 4-4 SEC. Momentum from a three-win streak has faded fast along with most practical post-season talk.
Yet there’s a quick way to change the subject. “Coach has been talking about this is the biggest game of the year for us,” center Schnider Herard said.
Certainly the biggest so far. There will be a rematch on February 21 as this annual home-and-home set brings the Rebels to Humphrey Coliseum, for what presumably will also be the next ‘biggest’ game. More immediately, both sides are trying to avoid falling farther off the pace as SEC season hits half-way.
Ole Miss (12-9, 3-5 SEC) has a few frustrations of their own. Participating in the SEC/BigXII Challenge, the Rebels gave visiting Baylor all the #5-ranked Bears could handle in a three-point loss. This was after another tight loss at home last week to Texas A&M.
“They’ve got a good team, very athletic,” Howland said.
They’ve also got some league leaders in the lineup. Senior forward Sebastian Saiz paces the SEC at 11.2 rebounds and is ninth in scoring at 15.8 points. Guard Deandre Burnett is fifth in scoring at 16.9 points, though he has only started one of the last three games and is in a January shooting slump of sorts.
“Saiz is fantastic, he’s an all-league player no question,” Howland said. Saiz can also stretch coverage with three-point range. Howland calls guard Terence Davis (12.6ppg) “one of the most improved players in our conference. The point guard (Cullen Neal) adds something, and they’re bringing their leading scorer off the bench.”
On the other end State will have to adjust early, often, and on the fly. The Rebels will throw some different zone looks together, as well as press the whole court in situations out of man and then drop back into another zone.
“It’s constant change and making you react,” said Howland. “Then they run good stuff on offense and do a good job playing through Saiz.”
Howland scored a split in his first rivalry rounds, the Bulldogs winning 83-77 on the home court with Ole Miss winning 86-78 in Oxford. The last ‘sweep’ was in 2011 with State taking both turns. This most-played series for both parties is 142 to 112 in Mississippi State’s favor. It is one of three active SEC rivalries with a winning record for MSU.
Only three current Dogs have played in the rivalry. Senior guard IJ Ready has been in seven meetings and averaged 9.0 points. Sophomore Quinndary Weatherspoon had a bigger impact as a freshman with 33 points in two games.
So for most of Howland’s roster, tomorrow is an initial exposure to a rivalry game. “I’m not from Mississippi,” said freshman Herard, who isn’t even originally from this country. He hears what the coach is saying. “But I’m going to go out there and do my things to win the game.”
The Bulldogs thought they could and even should have beaten Alabama, despite playing an erratic at best thirty or so minutes. With six minutes left State even took a lead, only to have the hosts run it out and run away. For that matter the Dogs haven’t played a good first half since Arkansas.
They also played all but two Tuscaloosa minutes without Ready, due to a right-leg injury. The MRI “came back unremarkable” said Howland in an interesting choice of words. It meant good news, that Ready suffered no serious harm. Still “He’ll be day to day,” Howland said, adding if no then “other guys have the opportunity.”
Of course Ready gave up his starting job after the first Alabama game to Lamar Peters. The freshman has electrified this program and says he’s become comfortable starting and rotating at point guard. Maybe too comfortable, as an eight-turnover day and forced drives in 4-of-12 shooting showed at Alabama.
Yet Peters is increasingly key to State successes either scoring or distributing, as a counterweight to Weatherspoon (17.6ppg). The sophomore guard will gladly not see Alabama again for a year after two tough matchups. Take those away and Weatherspoon has averaged 17.8 in the other SEC games on 58% shooting.
It falls to Herard to slow Saiz on one end and score against him at the other. The big freshman has become more efficient on offense and hit 71% of his shots the last five games. Herard has also played sounder defense, when not dogged by fouls. Of course his work at the foul line needs, well, work as in that same five-game stretch he is just 14-of-31 on free shots.
What the lineup really needs now is forward Aric Holman regaining his rhythm. In the three-win streak the sophomore was 12-of-23 shooting with 25 rebounds. Now in the last four contests Holman has struggled, 8-of-22 on the floor with 18 points for the 101 court minutes.
With January winding down the post-season projections pick up. Neither rival is on the NCAA Tournament track as of now though Ole Miss might be able to at least see the horizon. In the NCAA’s ratings power index listing Monday morning the Rebels are 69th, while State is far back in 123rd. Conventional thinking is a RPI in the 50s is bare minimum for realistic consideration.