Ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier this campaign, No. 17 Florida (11-3, 2-1 SEC) will no doubt be focused and ready to respond to the Sunshine State crowd of which Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury has addressed before.
"They (Florida) have such a good team and they'll have a crowd in Gainesville," said Stansbury, who has a split in the last two games against Billy Donovan's Gators, dropping a 74-66 decision last January in Starkville, while the Dogs knocked off Florida, 62-52, en route to winning the 2001-02 SEC Tournament Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
"It's never easy when you go on the road in this league," added Stansbury about the Dogs' third SEC game away from home so early in the season.
No. 19 Mississippi State (14-1, 3-1 SEC) moved up a notch Monday from No. 20 in The Associated Press¹ men's college basketball poll. The Dogs climbed four spots in the USA Today-ESPN men's college basketball poll to No. 20 coming off a split against then No. 5 Kentucky and LSU.
The Bulldogs dropped a narrow one-point, 67-66, decision to Kentucky on ESPN's "Super Tuesday" before traveling to LSU (12-2, 2-1) to take on the home-standing Bayou Bengals in Baton Rouge, La.
Mississippi State held off the Tigers, 64-54, at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center with a spark from freshman point guard Gary Ervin who had a team-high 13 points. Branden Vincent, 6-8 forward-center from Marrero, La., followed with 12 points, Timmy Bowers with 11 and 10 from Winsome Frazier, who entered the league duel leading the SEC in steals. Ervin scored seven straight points during a 9-2 run down the stretch to help give the Dogs a comfortable lead.
Making his first start of the season after setting out last year following his transfer from Iowa State, Shane Power had a pair of 3-pointers (2-of-2) and pulled down seven rebounds. Lawrence Roberts scored nine points and connected on his only 3-point attempt.
The Bulldogs have had different players step up throughout the season. Bowers, Roberts and Frazier helped ignite the second-half rally against the Wildcats that saw MSU take the lead in the final minute only to drop the heart-breaker.
Vincent, one of the Dogs' "unsung heroes" who never seems to let up, was instrumental in MSU's comeback win over instate rival Ole Miss in the SEC opener on the road.
Stansbury was concerned about how his team would respond after having the lead in the final seconds against Kentucky before a "deflection of the ball" ended up in the hands of the Wildcats' Erick Daniels for the winning basket at the buzzer.
"I think being able to bounce back from the tough loss to Kentucky says a lot about our basketball team," said Stansbury, who grew up in the "Blue Grass" state of Kentucky.
"However there are a lot of areas where we need to improve," Stansbury added.
The Gators are probably kicking themselves after letting a chance to take over the lead in the SEC East during their visit to Nashville after Kentucky had lost to Georgia earlier in the day, but Vandy's Matt Frieje and the No. 23-ranked Dores wouldn't have ant part in the scheme, rolling to an 86-72 upset of the Floridians at jam-packed Memorial Gym.
Florida's two early losses, which dropped the talented SEC East contingent from the ranks of the undefeated and out of the No. 1 spot in the country, came at the hands of Maryland, 69-68 in overtime, and Louisville 73-65 in back-to-back outings.
Oddly, for this early in the campaign, everybody has at least one league loss in the rugged SEC, perhaps the premier conference in the country.
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