Rivalries can be a tricky thing.
Unlike football where the year's victor is decided by one game, basketball allows a do-over. Over a 16-game conference schedule those teams meet twice, once at home and once away. There is rarely a public squabble for coveted in-state recruits, either.
So for the second time this season, Ole Miss and Mississippi State collide on the hardwood. But though the game carries added significance for both teams, competitive back-and-forth hasn't been the regular this week.
Rather, for the Rebels, fresh off a thrilling 74-67 comeback win against Alabama, there's work to be done.
"(Saturday's win) shows that the effort and energy we put into the second half, if we make two halves of that, there's no limit to what we can do," junior guard Zach Graham said of the win, one where Ole Miss trailed by as many as 23 points with 19 minutes left in the game.
Eniel Polynice is a bit more candid when discussing the team's approach _or lack thereof_ to the Crimson Tide.
"We just have to come more prepared and more focused (than we did against Alabama)," he said. "Some of our guys have to grow up and be more mature about these games and take it more seriously. I don't know if we were sleep-walking in the first half, but we can't come out like that the remainder of the season.
"We have to come out with the right mindset and the right focus. When we do, we're a very good, exciting team. When we come out lackadaisical, standing around and stuff, we look awful."
Ole Miss is jockeying for position in the SEC West. And the race for the division crown should become a little clearer at 8 p.m.
Nationally televised on ESPN, today's contest pits the second-place Rebels (17-6, 5-4 SEC) against third-place Mississippi State (16-7, 4-4) in Starkville. Ole Miss is a game behind division-leading Arkansas.
Following the road trip, four of the team's last six home games are at home.
"All we can do is focus on things we can control," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "In league play, we have an opportunity to control our own destiny. As a coach, going into mid-February, that's all you can ask. Now it's up to us to win games. If you win games, you'll have a chance to meet your goals."
MSU won 80-75 in the 2009-10 SEC opener in Oxford, despite a 42-37 Rebel lead at intermission. Point guard Dee Bost went for a career-high 25 points to lead the Bulldogs, including an inspired stretch in the second half.
Due primarily to poor transition defense, Bost drove to the basket at will in the deciding frame. With no answer from Ole Miss, he was allowed 17 points.
A quick-dribbled point guard with good ball speed, Bost was a matchup problem for the Rebels in the open floor. By attacking the basket, he shot double-figure free throws in the game, and continually put the pressure on no matter the defender he matched up against.
Throughout practice, Polynice has campaigned to guard Bost come tipoff. As arguably the team's best defender, he sees the assignment as a challenge worth tackling.
"I'm going to ask coach to get the first assignment," he said. "I'm going take that as a challenge. I hope I can slow him down so we can get a win."
However, with the talent of Bost, Kennedy isn't sure it's simply a one-man job.
"We'll see how the matchups line up," Kennedy added. "I think last game we matched Terrico (White) on him. Most everyone will have a shot at him. EP has some size and even though he's not as athletic as Terrico, he's got an ability through his defensive prowess to give people problems. I'm sure he'll have his fair share at Bost."
Today's game will be the 241st meeting between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, with the Bulldogs holding an all-time series lead of 135-105 in the SEC's most-played rivalry. The teams have split the season series each of the last four years.
Last season, each team won on the opponent's home court, including a 67-63 Ole Miss win at Humphrey Coliseum.
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