It's not just another game. Rod Barnes knows that.
It's the Mississippi State game, and when Ole Miss plays the Bulldogs, it means more.
It doesn't count more. But it means more.
Barnes' Ole Miss teams have struggled to win against Mississippi State recently, losing the last eight times the two have met. It's been well-documented; too much so for those who wear and support the red and blue.
They haven't all been one-sided, either. Most have been close and could have gone either way. One was in overtime. Another was two points. Last season in Starkville, three points.
But every one of the last eight has gone State's way, and by mid-afternoon Saturday, Barnes hopes to have reversed that trend.
But he's not beating himself up about it in case it doesn't happen. There's no way an entire season will hinge on the contest's outcome – certainly not one with as much early promise as this one has shown so far for the 12-3 Rebels who are 2-0 in Southeastern Conference play, tops at the moment in the SEC West.
But it is a game Ole Miss needs to win for all the reasons you can list.
"We can't put our whole season into it, but we know it's not just another game," Barnes said. "Whenever you play Mississippi State, it obviously means a lot, and we don't take that lightly. Obviously every year, you look at the schedule and see when you play Mississippi State. That's just what rivalries are all about. So it's big."
The Rebel roster is loaded with out of staters. That's not necessarily a new trend. Having the majority of UM men's basketball players from outside the borders of Mississippi has been common.
This year, however, every single player in red and blue calls another state home. Barnes, a native Mississippian who played for four years against Mississippi State and has coached the last 12 years against them either as an assistant or a head coach, feels his players already understand the rivalry. But he will make sure.
"Our guys know about it. They've heard about it," he said of the newcomers especially. "You're always concerned when you play a rival like this that kids will play differently than maybe another game. But I'm really not as concerned about our guys being too intense or playing this game differently. I saw that happen in here once before this season. But I don't expect that again."
Barnes has referenced that particular moment - the Memphis game from back in December - on more than one occasion when talking about Saturday's matchup with MSU. He believes the Rebels' 72-49 loss to the highly-ranked Tigers on Dec. 17 is a game that his troops remember well. It's also the last time they lost, currently with a six-game winning streak on the positive side of the ledger.
"I will tell them (today), ‘Do you guys remember Memphis? That's the way Mississippi State is going to come in here and play you. They're going to get after you. It's going to be really intense.' I think our kids will understand. I know they remember Memphis."
Junior point guard Todd Abernethy says he knows Saturday will be special. It's the kind of environment he's been waiting for since he got here a couple of seasons ago.
"It's going to be so exciting," he said. "Usually when we go to places (on the road) it's packed and their fans are really cheering for them. So to have so many fans in here 'for us' on Saturday, we're really looking forward to the energy that the crowd is going to bring. We can't wait."
Even though he's from out of state, the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry is also one he can relate to.
"Where I'm from it's IU-Purdue," said Abernethy, whose dad, Tom, played for the Indiana Hoosiers. Todd grew up attending IU games and sitting behind the home team's bench. "That's such a crazy rivalry. Growing up with that, I understand how this rivalry is. The two years I've already been here, there's just been a lot of emotion, a lot of intensity."
Abernethy says no matter where the players are from on the Rebels' roster, they know who they play for now.
"Even though we're not from Mississippi, we represent Ole Miss, The University of Mississippi," he said. "Everyone I come in contact with talks about the rivalry. I understand what it means. We all do."
Abernethy says the fact that the Rebels have gotten off to their best start since he's been here has the team motivated, focused, and confident.
"It feels really good. It's not something any of us has experienced here before," he said. "Now that we're on top at the present time, we want to stay there and continue to win."
Abernethy says one of the best things about the team so far is that for the most part they have indeed found a way to win.
"Like against South Carolina, I wouldn't say we played our best, but we still won," he said. "I thought our defense played really well, but we gave up too many points off rebounds. They didn't score a lot on our defense, and that was encouraging. Everybody is stepping up. It's been different people different nights. That's also great to see."
Abernethy says he's pretty sure MSU feels like it can stretch that win streak against UM on Saturday.
"Even though they lost to Florida (75-60 Wednesday night to fall to 11-4 overall and 1-1 in SEC play), they played a good game," he said. "I believe they'll be confident, especially since they've beaten us so much."
Barnes continues to talk about winning home games and how important it is through the course of a long season. Saturday is another chance for his troops to do that again.
"We talk about defending our home floor," he said. "So far Memphis is the only game we've lost in Tad Smith Coliseum this season (the Rebels are 9-1 at home). We knew it would be hard to win them all at home. We even talked about games where we'd be the underdog. Memphis was one of those games. We didn't take care of business that day. This time when I make a comparison to Memphis, I believe our guys will understand and be ready to play."
Barnes is making that comparison to his team today. Abernethy says his head coach is making sure they know what to expect, especially the new players who haven't experienced Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State.
"Coach says get your chin straps ready. It's going to be a fight out there," Abernethy said. "Hopefully (the referees) will let us play a little bit.
"We want this one in the worst way," Abernethy continued. "We want to be 3-0. No matter who it is, we want to win. Since it is State, our biggest rival, we definitely want this one."
Barnes, Rebels look forward to Saturday
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