Taking a spotless 11-0 record into its SEC opener Wednesday against instate rival Ole Miss at Oxford, Miss., the results in non-league activity couldn't have been scripted better. One of only a handful of perfect-record teams in the country, the Bulldogs have responded well to several key tests.
However, the Dogs' perfect record can go on the shelf for the time being to make room for upcoming SEC combat. No doubt, there's plenty marquee matches forthcoming.
In fact, Mississippi State's opening league bout against Ole Miss, winners of six straight to cap its pre-conference slate, couldn't get much tougher. The Magnolia State neighbors will tip-off at 7 p.m. at the "Tad Pad" better know as Tad Smith Coliseum.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury is inclined to agree that it doesn't get much tougher than having to play your instate rival on the road.
"Ole Miss is playing very well," acknowledged Stansbury, adding "they're shooting the ball well. It's never easy to play on the road, and in this instance, because they play with such great energy at home. That makes it very difficult to go there and have an opportunity to win."
Ole Miss (8-3) has won six in a row, including its latest outing on its home floor, an impressive 65-49 win Saturday over East Carolina keyed by senior 6-8 forward Justin Reed's 27-point outburst. Aaron Harper added 15 points.
Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes acknowledged a much healthier Ole Miss team is playing much better.
"We're healthy right now, but we've got a tough game," he said Monday during the weekly SEC Basketball Coaches Press Conference. "Mississippi State will come in undefeated so we have our work cut out for us."
Not only has Stansbury been pleased with the Bulldog twosome of Roberts and and Bowers, averaging over 30 points a game between them, but he applauds the play of Branden Vincent (6-8, Sr. F), Winsome Frazier (6-4, Jr. G-F), and Marcus Campbell (7-0, Jr. C), all starters. Junior transfer Shane Power (6-5, G-F) from Iowa State has been the bulldogs' "Sixth Man" off the bench while freshman guard Gary Irvin and freshman guard-forward Dietric Slater have chalked minutes along with senior 6-9 center Lincoln Smith.
"We've had different people step up at different times and make plays," noted Stansbury. "I like that about this team."
Both Bowers and Roberts scored on double figures in the Bulldogs final non-conference bout of the season, a solid 68-58 win Saturday night over Arkansas-Little Rock at North Little Rock., Ark.
The Bulldogs' point guard, swing player, bowers scored a game-high 22 points, hitting 7-of-15 from the floor including 4-of-7 three-pointers. A transfer from Baylor, Roberts posted his 30th career double-double with 20 points, including a pair of three-pointers and grabbed 13 rebounds.
For the season, the Harrison Central standout and former Mississippi Player of The Year as selected by USA Today, is averaging 16.4 points per game. He tops the team in 3-point shooting average, 37.7 percent, free throw average 75.7 percent while dishing out 53 assists on the season.
Roberts is averaging 16.3 points per game and an even 11 rebounds per game. He's had an immediate impact under the backboard and from time to time from the perimeter with the undefeated Bulldogs.
Roberts could end up being matched against Reed, the Rebels top scorer and rebounder with 18.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg.
Mississippi State has a win streak going against the Rebels, a modest four-game run, with three of the victories coming last year, including a triumph in the SEC Tournament at New Orleans, La.
It appeared Barnes' Rebels had a win in the bag in the last meeting in Oxford before MSU's all-SEC senior guard Derrick Zimmerman made a mad dash to the basket for a decisive driving layup on the final play of the game to lift the Bulldogs, 58-57, and send the Red and Blue home in shock.
Stansbury said he has great respect for the Ole Miss program and Coach Barnes.
"I have a lot of respect for Coach (Rod) Barnes and the success that they've had especially when they play at home," added Stansbury. "It's like always, it's difficult anytime you go on the the road in this league."
It doesn't get any easier as the Maroon and White returns home Saturday (Jan. 10) to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks followed by a Tuesday (Jan. 13) date with No. 7 Kentucky at The 'Hump.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at email@example.com