MississippiÂ State basketball coach Rick Ray in the second half of their NCAA college basketball game. (Photo by Rogelio V. Solis, AP)
The Mississippi State men's basketball team was on track to finish 14th in the Southeastern Conference and enter the conference tournament with the lowest seed.
After beating Ole Miss 73-67 on Saturday and snapping a 13-game losing streak inside Humphrey Coliseum, the Bulldogs (8-20, 3-13) have a chance to finish the regular season on a three-game winning streak and grab the No. 12 seed in the SEC Tournament.
The Bulldogs travel to South Carolina (13-16, 3-13) on Wednesday and host Auburn (9-20, 3-13) on Saturday.
With two wins and possibly just one win this week, the Bulldogs will get the No. 12 seed and play one of those two teams in the first round of the tournament.
For the Bulldogs, seeding for the tournament is not on their mind.
"I donâ€™t think our guys even know anything about the seeds at all," MSU head coach Rick Ray said during Monday's SEC teleconference. "I think guys are so wrapped up in school, whatâ€™s going on with the girlfriends, what movie is coming out and what songs to download, that they donâ€™t even know where they are in the standings. Weâ€™ll talk about it."
Mississippi State, South Carolina and Auburn will all be fighting for the No. 12 seed.
Once these teams get to the tournament, winning it will be a mountain climb. The squads have to win five games in five days to lift the trophy.
"You just have to stay in the moment, keep your team as fresh as you can and as focused as you can at the task at hand," South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said. "The task at hand is only the day that you're in. It's not the second day or the third day."
Only four teams play on the first day of the tournament. With 14 teams in the league, four teams will get double byes while four others will just get one bye.
MSU will be playing on the first day.
â€śThe one thing youâ€™ve got to be careful about is no matter what happens, weâ€™re still playing on the first day," Ray said. "What you donâ€™t want to do is use something as a motivational ploy, and then you lose that game, and now itâ€™s like, what do they have to play for? Iâ€™m not big into that. Iâ€™m like, hey, itâ€™s a basketball game, you should try to win it.â€ť
Today's games in the SEC feature Missouri hosting Arkansas and Alabama traveling to Ole Miss. Along with MSU traveling to South Carolina on Wednesday, Texas A&M hosts LSU, Vanderbilt travels to Florida and Tennessee makes the trip to Auburn. Thursday features Kentucky traveling to Georgia. Along with MSU hosting Auburn on Saturday, Florida plays at Kentucky, LSU hosts Ole Miss, South Carolina journeys to Vanderbilt, Arkansas hosts Texas A&M, Georgia goes to Alabama, and Missouri travels to Tennessee.
Mississippi State has seen its share of struggles this season.
Injuries and suspensions have contributed to that. The Bulldogs have lost three players to season-ending injuries and seen three players miss games due to suspensions.
The most recent was sophomore forward Roquez Johnson. He missed three games before coming back to help MSU beat Ole Miss on Saturday.
â€śFirst of all, we go from six scholarship players to seven scholarship players," Ray said. "That in itself is a huge boost, but not just that. We played the past three games with Tyson Cunningham, a walk-on at 6-2, as the back-up big man â€“ whether it be the four or the five. It gives you a presence there."
During the suspension, the staff sat down with Johnson and told them what they wanted from him when he came back.
It seemed to help Saturday.
"Roquez came back and played the way that he has been playing at the beginning of the season," Ray said.
"We had extensive talks during the suspension about his past play wasnâ€™t acceptable as far as him making hustle plays. He needs to be an energy guy for us, and he needs to be a hustle play guy."
A little over a month ago, the Ole Miss Rebels (21-8, 10-6) looked to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
Entering the first week of March, the Rebels are fighting for their lives.
A loss to MSU on Saturday didn't help Ole Miss' cause and has presented several questions about Andy Kennedy's future as the head coach and the Rebels shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
"It was a tough loss," Kennedy said. "We didn't play very well. Mississippi State really played with a sense of urgency in defending their home floor."
Ole Miss has two must-win games this week against Alabama at home and LSU on the road. The Rebels then must have a good showing in Nashville, Tenn. at the SEC Tournament.
"Obviously for us, it was a damaging loss to our profile," Kennedy said. "All that we can do now is get ready for the next game. We have two regular season games which will determine where we are as it relates to seeding in the SEC Tournament. We know we will have to go to Nashville and get some work done.
"I know we've got to win games. Regardless of what happens for us in the next two regular season games, we're still going to have work to do. My hope is that we will respond and come out on senior night and defend our home floor which we've done fairly well, (then) find a way to go and break through on the road in Baton Rouge."
get SEC honors
Missouri's Alex Oriakhi and Vanderbilt's Kevin Bright were honored by the SEC on Monday for their performances last week.
Oriakhi won SEC Player of the Week after averaging 18 points, 6.5 rebounds and three blocks in wins over South Carolin and LSU.
He recorded his 10th double-double of the season against LSU. It is the most double-doubles for a Tiger since Linas Kleiza grabbed 10 in 2004-05.
Bright won SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 12.5 points and seven rebounds in wins over Georgia and Auburn.
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