Rebels bring impressive records to Starkville for game against rival Bulldogs

Mississippi State's Aric Holman

Staff Writer

Just a couple of months ago, very few, if any, saw this coming.

No. 14 Mississippi State (12-2, 0-1) is set to host Ole Miss (12-2, 2-0) Saturday at noon at Humphrey Coliseum and it’s, as usual, a huge game with the the instate rivals squaring off. However, virtually nobody could have seen it being this big.

MSU is living up to its high expectations for this season. That’s not a shock. What is though is that Ole Miss has proven itself to be at least just as good. It sets up a crucial hardwood battle Saturday.

The Rebels would love to keep surprising the college basketball world, but one person they won’t catch off guard is Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland. He claims he expected Ole Miss to be tough all along in the school’s first year under new head coach Kermit Davis.

“I thought that the talent left behind (from last year) was good talent,” Howland said. “I really did. We know that. Those guys come from a program – they had a tough year last year – but previous years, they had won 20 games I think four years in a row. They had a really good culture. (Former Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy) did a really good job there.”

Ole Miss comes to Starkville flying high. The Rebels just upset No. 10 Auburn 82-67 this past Wednesday.

The victory has actually put Ole Miss ahead of Mississippi State now in the NET rankings – the tool now used to determine the NCAA Tournament field in March. The Rebels are 28th in those rankings as of Friday. MSU is 30th.

“All those kids are a year older and a year more mature,” Howland said of the Rebels. “I think they really have worked incredibly hard since the new staff and Kermit have arrived.”

A trio of guards has been one of the biggest reasons for Ole Miss’ success. Breein Tyree paces the Rebels with his 17.4 points per game. Terence Davis isn’t far behind with 16 points per contest. Devontae Shuler adds 10.6 an outing.

Ole Miss has size in the post too. Forward Bruce Stevens and Center Dominik Olejniczak have both been key contributors.

In fact, one of the keys to Saturday’s game for Mississippi State might be whether or not the Bulldogs can limit the rebounding ability of Stevens, Olejniczak and the rest of the Rebels.

MSU was out-rebounded by seven in its overtime loss to South Carolina on Tuesday. Howland says State can’t afford for that to happen Saturday.

“We definitely want to block out better than we did (at South Carolina) and get everybody rebounding,” Howland said. “They beat us on the boards in Columbia the other night by seven and that was a huge difference in the game.”

State’s Aric Holman says there has been an emphasis on improving rebounding heading into Saturday.

“It’s the little things like communication at certain times on defense, but being more aggressive,” Holman said. “At the end of the day, that’s the main thing.”

If State can crash the boards as well as it hopes Saturday, perhaps the Bulldogs can get back to their winning ways. MSU had a nine-game winning streak snapped with the loss at South Carolina. Holman said the defeat has served as a bit of a wake-up call.

“We slipped up (against South Carolina) and we don’t want to have that happen again, so our focus has been taken up a notch,” Holman said.

Yet the Rebels will surely be ready to try and hand the Bulldogs a second-straight loss. Not long ago, that might not have seemed likely, but the Rebels are rolling and the Bulldogs know it’ll take a fight to slow them down.

“They had a down year a year ago, but they’ve been revitalized and they’re coming with a new enthusiasm with a very good, experienced coach like Kermit who’s taken it and really built something that’s strong,” Howland said.