Ranked 19th nationally in both polls this week, coach Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs are 17-5 overall and 7-4 in conference play after claiming a 63-46 road win over the Auburn Tigers this past Wednesday. Prior to holding Auburn to its lowest scoring output since the team's 1997-98 season opener earlier in the week, Mississippi State had previously completed a successful homestand sweep of Mississippi (68-64 in OT), Arkansas (84-54) and Vanderbilt (82-60). On the way to grabbing a one-game lead over second-place Auburn in the SEC's Western Division standings, the Bulldogs have limited their last eight opponents (7-1 record) to an average of just 57.5 points per game on collective 37.8-percent field-goal shooting. MSU's only loss during the past month was a 67-63 setback at then-15th-ranked Georgia on Feb. 1.
Individually, Mississippi State is ignited by the inside-outside scoring tandem of juniors Mario Austin and Timmy Bowers. Recently named as a top-20 national finalist for the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Award, Austin is coming off his fifth double-double performance of the season (third in his last five outings) with his 14-point, 12-rebound effort at Auburn this past Wednesday. The SEC Player of ther Year candidate currently paces the Bulldogs in scoring (16.8 ppg), rebounding (8.6 rpg) and field-goal percentage (56.1%). Rated among the SEC's top-11 statistical leaders in five different categories, Bowers is fresh off a career-high, 25-point showing at Auburn in which he hit 9-of-13 field goals and 4-of-6 treys against the Tigers. The former Mississippi high school player of the year presently rates as the league's 11th-best scorer at 14.6 points per contest. Bowers' backcourt mate and fellow team co-captain - senior point guard Derrick Zimmerman - is averaging a solid 9.3 points, 5.2 assists (3rd in the SEC), 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals (5th in the SEC) per outing from his playmaking position.
Presently ranked second in both national polls behind top-rated Arizona, the Kentucky Wildcats are 21-3 overall and undefeated in 11 conference decisions on the year. Guided by sixth-year head coach Tubby Smith, UK's most recent loss was an 81-63 setback on the road to in-state rival Louisville back on Dec. 28. The Wildcats' other losses this season have been to Michigan State (71-67 at home on Dec. 14) and Virginia (75-61) at the season-opening Maui Invitational in Hawaii. With four starters scoring in double figures on the year, Kentucky is led by the veteran backcourt tandem of senior Keith Bogans and junior Gerald Fitch, who are averaging 16.3 and 12.7 points per game, respectively. On the inside, senior center Marquis Estill averages 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds an outing, while junior forward Erik Daniels contributes an average of 10.2 points and 5.8 boards a game.
In addition to last year's dramatic, come-from-behind 74-69 home overtime triumph over then-sixth-ranked Kentucky, the Bulldogs are bidding to post back-to-back wins over the Wildcats for the first time since defeating UK during successive seasons 40 years ago in 1961-62 and 1962-63. In 20 previous tries, Mississippi State's lone prior win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena was a 76-71 victory over the then-fourth-ranked Wildcats on Feb. 14, 1995.