Hot MSU and 15th Ranked Ole Miss To Battle

Mississippi State comes into Saturday's game against in-state rival Ole Miss, currently ranked 15th in the nation in the coaches poll, with an eight-game winning streak, a 4-0 record in the SEC, and a two-game lead over the rest of the SEC Western Division. Sophomore guard Barry Stewart talks about the reasons for the winning streak and the Ole Miss Rebels.

The winning streak?

"I think it's due to (what happened) early in the season," said Stewart, referring to his team's 5-5 season-opening start. "We lost three starters and we were new as a group, and we were playing some tough competition early in the season. There were no teams that weren't any good. That gave us a big test early in the season and prepared us for the SEC."

Three of the teams that they lost to by a combined 12 points - South Alabama (15-3, three losses by a combined 9 points including a 3-point road loss to Ole Miss), Clemson (15-4, 25th ranked, a 3-point neutral court loss to Ole Miss) and Miami (FL) (14-4, a recent 6-point loser to the No. 3 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels) - are now a combined 44-11, with one, South Alabama, on an 11-game winning streak.

Playing tough early opponents and adjusting to the new lineup are both significant, but the team defensive play has also been a key to the streak.

"It seemed like around the third or fourth game of this current win streak, we realized we were getting stops of big, key players on the other teams," said Stewart. "I think it's due to more people taking pride in (their defense) and not letting their man go by them and scoring on them. It looks like everybody is taking it personal. And that's big for a team."

Stewart points to one early season loss that turned the tide.

"Probably after the South Alabama game, when that guy scored so many points on us (Demetric Bennett, 39 pts), we took that to heart and got to work."

And it doesn't hurt to have a shot-blocker in the middle like sophomore center Jarvis Varnado, a youngster with a wingspan of a 7-foot-4 player.

"Having Jarvis down there is a key to our defense," said Stewart. "Last year he didn't have as much muscle, but, despite not having gained that much more weight, he's gained a little more muscle and can hang in there better (defensively) this year.

"And his rebounding and intensity level have also improved. His intensity level has improved so much it's allowed him to bring another aspect to his game."

But his play this year hasn't surprised Stewart, who has seen him in high school and AAU ball.

"Probably knowing Jarvis longer than anybody else on this team, I'm not surprised," noted Stewart. "Jarvis has done that before in AAU and high school. He was a big-time shot blocker back then."

And State will need Jarvis to be at his defensive best this Saturday with the 15th ranked Rebels coming to the Hump in what is projected to be an extremely intense game before a hard sellout crowd.

"Like Coach (Stansbury) says, it's the biggest game because it's our next game," said Stewart. "(But) this is a big rivalry between Ole Miss and M-State. I think (the rivalry aspect) is more of a thing with the fans, but it is a big game."

And sometimes big games come down to who makes the big shots late in the game, particularly the big free throw shots, something MSU has not done well at the entire season. And that's a concern to Stewart.

"I'm not sure if it's mental," said Stewart. "but I know it's odd because you don't see us missing free throws like that."

And the team has been working hard in practice to correct whatever may be causing the problem.

"We've been working extra on that as a team through this off-week," said Stewart. "We are just shooting the same way every time. Sometimes you might change a few things about your rhythm and what you are doing with your shot, but it's really about focus."

And now, with just two days to go, the focus turns to Ole Miss and a chance to stay atop the SEC standings and maintain at least a two-game lead over the rest of the SEC Western Division.


Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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