The Rebels have stumbled twice in the opening weeks of SEC season, but that hasn't cost their place in the polls with a #17 ranking of this week. Which adds to the interest as the league-leader hosts a top-25 foe, with the rivalry aspect thrown in for good measure. Maybe the best gauge of the interest is that MSU students, who typically delay picking up their tickets until late in the week, exhausted the supply in less than two days after school resumed Tuesday. Any unused seats of season-ticket holders will be made available to a few more students after tip-off. And those unable to get in The Hump, or get to campus, can watch regionally the FSN/SUN telecast.
With an open mid-week (same as Ole Miss), Stansbury and staff have had a bit more time than usual to prepare for this matchup. State has not over-worked though; just the opposite as practice pace actually relaxed somewhat. Stansbury wanted to give injured, gimpy, or just sore Dogs some late-January rest that should pay off in the month to come. Senior F Charles Rhodes has certainly benefited from down-time on the aggravating left ankle injured in late December. He's played on and twice re-turned the ankle since but will be in the starting lineup again. Stansbury indicated today he will stay with the ‘big' lineup of Rhodes and C Jarvis Varnado in the frontcourt.
This, after State began the current eight-game winning streak with a four-guard lineup built around Varnado. "We had a three-week period playing the other way," Stansbury said. "It's been an adjustment for the players more than anybody." Then again, keeping Rhodes on the side when State and Ole Miss tip it off is almost unthinkable given the Jackson product's track record against the Rebels. Last year he scored 41 points with 15 rebounds in two games against the rivals.
State didn't have much option about going back ‘big' though when starting G Ben Hansbrough broke the third finger of his left hand in the win against Georgia. He missed one game, then played 25 minutes off the bench at Alabama with nine points off three treys. Stansbury is going to play the soph shooter again this week, but added there has to be some care taken how and when. Even his practices have been limited to drills that don't risk damaging the still-mending digit. That will continue for the coming few weeks, too.
"It's going to be one of those situations for a while, we'll put him in when we can to keep some kind of conditioning and rhythm up."
Speaking of rhythm, Stansbury admires what this Rebel team is doing under second-year Coach Andy Kennedy. Ole Miss is among the SEC's best shooting and scoring squads playing an up-tempo pace. But they also batter the boards with the best, and make foes work for points. "Andy has his team playing as well as any in the league," Stansbury said.
"They've got as big a frontcourt as in this league. They can score around the hole but they attack the offensive boards. And they're so big, not seven-footers but 6-8, 6-9 and big, thick bodies that go to the boards hard. Kenny Williams sees every opportunity for a missed shot to be his, Dwayne Curtis has a great set of mitts and feet. That's where it starts at."
Actually, the offense starts with Chris Warren, the freshman point guard who makes the Rebels run. Gun, too. The roster already had a couple of scorers in Eniel Polynice and David Huertas, who've stepped up into bigger sophomore roles. "But the guy that's made the difference on this team is Warren. He can shoot it, handle it, pass it. He's a scoring point guard that has the ability to pass. He's had an unbelievable year."
Aside from the obvious rivalry-and-record aspects, the technical interest in this matchup is Ole Miss' knack for putting up points against a Bulldog team that leads the league in both scoring and shooting defense. By eye-opening margins, too. State's four SEC foes have averaged just 52 points on 31% shooting, and contrary to popular perception the Bulldogs have given up the second-fewest three-point goals through four league games.
Not that State can't run and gun some, with proven producers in the backcourt and a shot-swatter in Varnado that allows the Dogs to gamble on both ends of the floor. Stansbury would rather not get in an goal-to-goal race with the Rebs but "We'll take easy baskets when we got them. When we don't, hopefully we'll be efficient."
And, more hopefully successful. Adding even more interest is State's nine-year winning streak on the home floor in this rivalry, which is both encouraging and worrisome. After all, a streak is bound to end some year. These Bulldogs just don't intend it be in 2008.
Besides, the voluble and volatile Rhodes sees this edition of the series as some unfinished business. The teams split last winter, and ended up sharing the Western Division title with no chance to ‘break' that tie. Rhodes is able to rise above the rivalry in one sense. "Last year it was Mississippi State and Ole Miss that won the Western Division. We represented Mississippi in a good way." Yet state pride ends when the state's teams line up at 4:00 Saturday.
"We've got to throw all that outside," Rhodes said.