MSU welcomes Kentucky to start second half of SEC men's season

Kentucky's PJ Washington (25) shoots while defended by Mississippi State's Reggie Perry during the first meeting between the two teams in Lexington, Ky. on Jan. 22.

Staff Writer

The second half of the Southeastern Conference schedule has arrived.

Mississippi State (16-6, 4-5) welcomes No. 5 Kentucky (19-3, 8-1) to Starkville Saturday for a noon tip. Bulldogs head coach Ben Howland knows his team’s hands will be full as State begins the back half of the SEC slate.

“Starting off with an easy one right?” Howland said sarcastically on Friday.

As Howland well knows, topping Kentucky is anything but a simple task. The Bulldogs already lost to the Wildcats earlier this season when they fell 76-55 in Lexington last month. In fact, Howland has never beaten Kentucky since he’s been the head coach at MSU. Overall, the Wildcats have won the last 12 meetings over the Bulldogs. State hasn’t been victorious over Kentucky since February of 2009.

MSU might be facing an uphill battle Saturday to reverse all those trends. The Wildcats come to Humphrey Coliseum riding a nine-game winning streak.

“They’re hot,” Howland said of Kentucky. “They’re the hottest team in the country right now.

“Whether it’s good teams or foreign courts, much less their own, they’re playing great. They’re really good. (Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s) teams get better throughout the year because they typically start with young guys, so as that team matures, you see where they are now from where they started.”

The Bulldogs were actually the fifth victim in Kentucky’s current nine-game run. MSU hopes Saturday’s matchup with the Wildcats is completely different than its last.

Little went right for the Bulldogs earlier this year in Lexington. State shot only 31.1 percent from the field in that contest, including only 15 percent from 3-point range. The Bulldogs were out-rebounded by seven.
Oddly enough, MSU even began with the wrong starting lineup as an assistant coach marked the wrong player when turning in the starting five for the game.

Howland is looking for better results Saturday.

“We definitely have to do a better job with them on the glass,” Howland said. “We have to a better job offensively. (During) the first time we played, I thought we played rushed. We have to be more patient once we’re in the half-court and move the ball.

“We had the wrong starting lineup in. It was a bad beginning right from the get-go in Lexington. We’ll have the starting five right (today) for sure.”

Maybe the toughest task Mississippi State faces Saturday is getting over the pain it felt on Wednesday after falling to No. 21 LSU. The Bulldogs led by as many as 10 points in the second half against the Tigers before LSU roared back to tie the game, send it to overtime and eventually defeat MSU.

Howland called the loss “gut-wrenching” in his post-game comments. However he thinks his club can and has put it in the past.

“I think our guys are resilient,” Howland said. “I think kids bounce back quickly. They’re excited for the opportunity (Saturday). They know Kentucky is the winningest program in the history of basketball at the college level. They’re great every year and they have a bunch of guys on that team that’ll be NBA players someday, so it’s a great and exciting challenge for our team.”

The scary part for the Bulldogs is that, even if they have gotten over Wednesday’s loss and they play well today, even that might not be enough to turn away the talented Wildcats, and with the season entering its stretch run, every game is starting to become critical for Mississippi State as it looks to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade.

As always, Howland and the Bulldogs insist they’re taking a one-game-at-the-time approach and not giving the big picture much thought. Yes, the challenge is great Saturday as the second half of the league schedule begins, but that’s just life in the SEC says Howland.

“I like our team,” Howland said. “I think our team has had a very good year. This is an unbelievable gauntlet that is the SEC. Bottom line is – that’s what we’re going through and we’ve got to deal with it.”