7th Ranked MSU Takes on 11th Ranked Florida

STARKVILLE, Miss. - Riding the momentum of a current 10-game winning streak, the seventh-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs begin Southeastern Conference competition by playing host to the 11th-ranked Gators of Florida Tuesday evening on the MSU campus. Tip-off for the league-opening contest is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum, with the inter-divisional SEC battle set to be televised nationally by ESPN-TV.

With their highest AP ranking since the team's 1995-96 Final Four campaign, the Bulldogs return to the friendly confines of Humphrey Coliseum this week for the first time since Dec. 7, when they previously concluded a season-opening 5-1 homestand with a 78-38 victory over Louisiana Tech. In the month that has passed, coach Rick Stansbury's 10-1 Bulldogs have knocked off nationally ranked Xavier and Oklahoma, as well as posting a neutral-site win over Georgia State at Jackson's Mississippi Coliseum and most recently claiming road wins over South Alabama (85-74) and UAB (68-52) within the past week.

Having won five straight decisions over nationally ranked opponents dating back to last season, Mississippi State opens SEC play this year with three successive Top 25-ranked league opponents in Florida, LSU and Alabama - the same three teams (in the same sequential order) that last year's MSU squad defeated in Atlanta to capture the school's second SEC Tournament championship in the last seven years. Including last year's SEC Tournament run, the Bulldogs begin conference play this season having won eight consecutive contests against league opposition dating back to last year's regular season-ending, five-game win streak.

In addition, the Bulldogs have won their last 12 SEC openers dating back to the 1990-91 season, which spans the exact period of time that Stansbury has been at Mississippi State. MSU's fifth-year hoops mentor served as an assistant coach on the State staff for eight seasons (1990-98) before being promoted in 1998.

Leading the SEC as a team in scoring margin (+19.5 ppg), rebounding margin (+12.4 rpg) and field-goal percentage defense (36.6%) as conference action commences this week, MSU is powered by the inside prowess of junior all-America candidate Mario Austin, who tops the Bulldogs in both scoring (19.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.6 rpg). The preseason Wooden Award and Naismith Player of the Year candidate was recently named to FOXSports.com's 2002 All-American First Team based on individual performances through the 2002 portion of the current season. On the perimeter, the Bulldogs' athletic backcourt tandem comprised of team co-captains Derrick Zimmerman and Timmy Bowers are presently combining to average 25.3 points, 8.6 assists, 8.0 rebounds, 4.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game, as well as collectively shooting 53 percent from the field, between them on the season.

Ranked 11th nationally in this week's AP poll and 12th in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, the University of Florida begins SEC play sporting an 11-2 overall record and current seven-game winning streak after posting easy post-Christmas home victories over Bethune-Cookman (99-64) and Florida A&M (91-58). Guided by seventh-year head coach Billy Donovan, the Gators are led in scoring by freshmen Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson at 16.8 and 14.4 points per game, respectively. Reigning all-SEC forward Matt Bonner rates as the club's third-leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and No. 2-leading rebounder (5.7 rpg).

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