The must-win question continues to be asked

For Ole Miss, the question about tomorrow's Mississippi State game being a "must win" has been mentioned by the media and fans for nearly a week – since Auburn upset Ole Miss last Saturday.

I was asked that question on a radio show earlier this week. Andy Kennedy and the Rebel players have been asked more than a few times this week.

Calling a game a must win is always up for debate, unless of course it is something like the final game of the season and a win means a championship or a loss means your season is finished. In that situation it's an easy evaluation.

So in the case of 2-2 Ole Miss vs. 4-0 MSU - their current SEC records – some are saying the Rebels must win. So why is that?

The Rebel coaches and players, who aren't cornering themselves with any such labels, want to win the SEC West, a championship Ole Miss and MSU tied for last season, the fourth time in 11 years the Rebels had won the division title.

The Rebels want to win the SEC overall championship. Ranked 15th and 17th in the two major polls, the Rebels have a resume' that proves they are capable. All four of their conference games have been close. They have won by two and three points and lost by two and three. They could be 4-0 or 0-4.

At 15-2 overall and with a .500 league mark, the Rebels head to Starkville. A Mississippi State team that struggled early in the year is now playing as well as perhaps anybody in the country. MSU has won eight games in a row and stands 13-5. A perfect mark in league play, with two of them road wins, has the Bulldogs atop the West by two games. The Rebels are the next team to try to slow them down and change the course of the race.

Ole Miss men's basketball has won only twice at MSU since 1983. Rob Evans won there in his first and last seasons in 1993 and 1998. The other coaches since Lee Hunt's first season, when his Rebs got a win there, have come up empty.

So can the Rebels win in Starkville Saturday? Certainly they can, but it really shouldn't be labled a "must win." If the Rebels do win, they are back in the thick of things. If they lose, then the Vanderbilt game at home next Wednesday might inch into that "must" category – if Ole Miss wants to continue on course for one of the above mentioned titles.

The Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry in men's basketball has been one the Rebel players normally have to learn about and the Bulldog players grow up knowing about. While the Ole Miss roster has had very few Mississippi players the past couple of decades, the Bulldog roster is usually dotted with at least a handful of key players who know what the rivalry means.

In Ole Miss' case, for example, the Florida game might have as much meaning for Chris Warren and Kenny Williams and Eniel Polynice and certainly David Huertas as the games against Mississippi State.

When players like Keith Carter, Jason Smith, Jason Harrison, Jason Flanigan, etc., suited up for UM, it was the Arkansas game that meant so much to them, since they were from there.

The Rebels won in Oxford last year in Kennedy's first season as the two teams split. State's had the upper hand in the rivalry on the hardwood for quite a while now. It was a similar type run the Bulldogs had put together in baseball before Mike Bianco's program got totally off the ground.

In his third season, Bianco's Rebels were swept by State in Oxford and were struggling to beat the Bulldogs. Since then Ole Miss has dominated the series and has had the better of it in this rivalry for four years.

It was a stay the course situation in baseball as the program was headed in the right direction and wins against the arch-rival were sure to come.

Same in basketball. As in baseball, State isn't likely going away in men's hoops. Their program has been solid for years. But the Rebel resurgence under Kennedy has given the rivalry new life, and it's stay the course for Ole Miss men's basketball as well.

Someday the Rebels will win again in Starkville. It could be Saturday.

But calling tomorrow's SEC road game a "must win" likely misses the mark. It's still January. There's too much season remaining to get caught up in all that at this point.


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