Bulldogs Host Rebels with 8:00 Tuesday Tipoff

Whatever there is, or isn’t, left to play for this season, there is always pride. Which just happens to be central to Mississippi State’s next home court opportunity.

Mississippi State (14-12, 5-9 SEC) hosts round-two with Ole Miss (16-11, 7-7) in Tuesday’s late broadcast slot, 8:00 for ESPN2. Though this is a rematch of the rivals, being on the home floor makes it different for Mario Kegler.

“I’ve been waiting for this game for a long time,” the Jackson native said.

Kegler and club certainly have been wanting a shot at some redemption since round-one. That was back in late January when the host Rebels ran away with an 88-61 decision that looked worse on the screen than on the box score. Which was ugly enough.

Kegler hasn’t forgotten. “We just came out nonchalant, too cool. And it showed.”

Setting aside how any squad which had lost three-of-four going into a road rivalry game could conceivably have been ‘too cool’; the heat is on to balance some books. Ole Miss has won five of the last six meetings, and the most recent victory was by their largest margin ever in the series. Such things matter in this state.

Including a native like freshman forward Kegler who wants his first win in the rivalry. “I feel like it means a lot, to not just me but the fans of Mississippi State. Coming out and competing and winning this game will mean a lot to the Mississippi State family.”

In the bigger-season picture, a win will stop the four-game slide which has defined Dog frustration. The average margin has been just 5.5 points. Or, if one prefers, by two possessions. This shows how much closer Mississippi State has come to getting its 2017 act together than the record of eight losses in the last ten SEC chances.

This past Saturday’s 57-52 final, at home, against top-20 Florida was another example of close and not close enough. The Bulldogs even led for a fair portion of the first half, and were tied-up in the late minutes after their accustomed second-half surge. To fall short yet again could naturally take a toll.

Howland, happily, hasn’t seen it. His second Mississippi State team has been able to get on to the next game and next opportunity without dragging emotional baggage along.

“Even in this tough stretch we’ve been in these kids have not quit. I’m happy about that.”

For that matter Howland recalls a pretty competitive first meeting some first-half Bulldog leads and a one-point margin for either as the period wound down. That was a night State did not have senior point guard IJ Ready, and would soon have to sit starting point Lamar Peters with a hip pointer.

What jumps out to the coach though was a sequence in the one-point contest when center Schnider Herard picked up a foul. “And it went off a cliff,” Howland said. Ole Miss bolted to a 51-33 halftime lead and kept the pedal pushed to the end.

Literally in the sense their aggressive guard play on offense made a pace the gimpy and then shortened State backcourt could not match. “Our transition defense was horrible,” Howland said. “The worst we’ve played all season and they exploited it.”

“And we didn’t guard the ball, they were driving us and really got to the goal.” More than Rebel guards got involved, though. Forward Sebastian Saiz had a 17-point, 11-rebound evening at home in just 29 minutes. The Reb’s big man is averaging 15.0 points now on 73% shooting, and bidding for league player of the year with his season double-double.

State has no direct answer for Saiz. There is a gradually-improving post presence in freshman Herard, who learns a few defensive tricks with each hard lesson in this league. Herard is also a bit more efficient on offense of late, to the point Howland would like to get more post-touches to the big kid.

This likely takes on greater practice emphasis after Saturday’s 2-of-23 showing from the three-point arc. To be fair the stats don’t explain the shots, many of which were good looks at the time and approved on video review. “We missed no question some open looks,” Howland said.

However, the coach also saw a few more chances to drive the ball and make Florida’s defense adjust. It’s a tricky thing this point of a season, for a squad which has come to rely on outside shooting. The overall accuracy isn’t nearly as bad as one or two games make it seem, either. It’s simply that missed long shots are easier to remember and second-guess.

This game, though, could very much be a case of forcing things closer. State was just 7-of-25 at the Oxford arcs and Ole Miss can play physical perimeter defense. So getting the ball to Herard and forward Aric Holman could be a higher priority. So would having struggling shooter Quinndary Weatherspoon attack the goal. ‘Q’ was 1-of-8 at the arc Saturday, compared to 7-of-12 inside it.

Kegler can be a real key in this rematch. He only took six shots the first time, and five were from long range. Yet Kegler can and should be an inside force as well. It is his ability to begin close to the goal and move outside, either taking a defender with him or getting free for a look, that State needs in such matchups. That certainly should allow a Dog like Weatherspoon to play outside/in by contrast, as well as give aggressive guard Peters lanes to attack.

Kegler didn’t intend to let Saturday’s stats linger longer after some extra hours on the Mize court to work on confidence. “I think we’ll shoot the ball better tomorrow. I felt I had to get back in the gym and see some shots go in.”

Tomorrow is State’s next-to-last home game. After trips to Vanderbilt and South Carolina, the Bulldogs will close out the regular campaign in the Hump on March 4 against LSU.

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