On to the Next

There is a different air about Ole Miss basketball when the Rebels play Mississippi State, an in-state rivalry renewed.

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As evidenced Saturday, when they played host to a Bulldog team that handed them their only conference loss earlier this month, Ole Miss - Mississippi State carries a little more weight than other games.

At least it always seems that way.

The largest crowd of the season - 8,843, to be exact - packed inside Tad Smith Coliseum could stand as proof, I suppose, as well as the passion that pours out, win or lose, from fans on message boards and social media.

But if you ask around, from Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy to guard Jarvis Summers, Saturday was but another game. One in 31, as it has to be, even if such a mindset is unpopular amongst the masses.

"This is not a popular answer," Kennedy said following Ole Miss' 82-63 win. "When people think Mississippi State - Ole Miss, they think the Egg Bowl. It's the season ending. Regardless of what happens in that game, both teams have the opportunity to exhale and then prepare for whatever's next.

"For us, you can't put that much emphasis on it. Obviously, it's important. It's important to me. I live in the same community you do. A lot of people get a little more excited about this game than they do the others. But for us, it's got to be a workmanlike approach, simply because we play every three days. At the end of the day, this is one of 31. I'm glad for Rebel nation that we gave them something to be excited about."

Marshall Henderson
USA TODAY images

Kennedy is from Louisville, Miss. Of course the rivalry matters. But it matters in the summer during alumni meetings, not when his team is scratching and clawing to get back on the NCAA tournament bubble.

The real story Saturday wasn't that Ole Miss beat Mississippi State, but that the Rebels are now 14-5 overall and 5-1 in Southeastern Conference games. They've won four straight, setting up a critical midseason road trip to Tennessee next week.

Bottom line: Ole Miss beat a team it was supposed to beat, avoiding a second sub-100 RPI loss to this same Mississippi State team. It's all in the numbers.

"We've got to do a good job of protecting home floor," Kennedy said. "We let three get away from us - one possession here, one possession there, and those are things that still sting. The challenge was to come in and do what you're supposed to do and that's protect home floor."

Period. Whether it's the in-state rival or South Central Louisiana State University. (I apologize in advance for the Waterboy reference.)

Fan bases are wired to think football, football, football. The emotions of the Egg Bowl loss are still fresh. I get it.

But basketball doesn't work like football. Don't believe me? Last season Ole Miss was embarrassed in Starkville by one of the worst Mississippi State teams in history. Most everyone - this writer included - cast the loss as the death knell for Ole Miss, ending all hopes of the Rebels reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. And doubt surrounded the future of Kennedy.

Ole Miss was cutting down the nets in Nashville as SEC tournament champions a month later.

So, on to the next. After Tennessee comes South Carolina. The goal for Ole Miss is to keep stacking wins on top of wins. The Rebels kept the line moving on Saturday. End of story.

"Not really," Summers, who scored 19 points on 6 of 11 shooting, said, when asked if he puts added emphasis on the rivalry. "I just go out like it's my last game. I play every game the same - just give it my all and try to help my team win."

Mission accomplished.

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