By MATTHEW STEVENS
In order to avoid trying to accomplish another four-game in four-day stretch at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, a victory today in the Magnolia State rivalry between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Ole Miss Rebels is must have.
With both Ole Miss and Mississippi State both having wins over Arkansas, a win in this contest will create an instant one-game lead with six to play for the final bye in the conference tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“We understand what this game means to our fans, but as coaches and players, we know it counts as just one win or one loss. Nothing more,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said. “There’s still a lot of basketball left.”
Ole Miss comes to Starkville going into a much more positive direction since they began league play more than a month ago when the Bulldogs took home a 69-64 victory at the Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford on Jan. 13. That loss for the Rebels (17-9, 5-6 in SEC) was the second of five-straight losses to begin conference play but Ole Miss has rallied to win four of its last five contests including a 31-point home victory this week over Auburn leading into today’s in-state matchup at 12:30 p.m.
“It seems every year it's one game here or there," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said Monday. "There's a lot of basketball that has to be played. We still play all of them (West teams), so a lot will be decided then."
Conversely Mississippi State (13-12, 5-6) is in a tailspin losing five of its last eight and two straight on the road to Auburn and Kentucky in the last seven days.
MSU has now lost six games this season when leading at the half.
The Bulldogs dropped a 19-point lead in the second half at Auburn and then had a halftime lead at Rupp Arena dwindle away into their fourth road loss in five games.
Stansbury will try to maintain some confidence against the Rebels as the 13-year veteran holds an 11-1 against Ole Miss at Humphrey Coliseum, with the average margin of victory being 12 points and the lone loss being in 2009.
“We know we’re going to get their best effort,” said Stansbury, whose team is back at home on Wednesday at 8 p.m. against LSU. “They’re playing as well as they have all season, and we’ll have little room for error.”
This game also features two of the SEC’s top five scorers in Rebels senior guard Chris Warren (18.4, 2nd) and MSU senior Ravern Johnson (17.1, 5th) meet up for the final time in the regular season.
“(Ravern) jumped up and made some shots for us,” Stansbury said Tuesday. “It helps us when he makes some shots and he jumped up and made some plays. I was proud to see Ravern bounce back.”
Following Johnson’s suspension after his inappropriate tweets last week, the defensive duty for Warren could fall to freshman Jalen Steele.
“My disappointment and what I continue to preach to our guys is Chris draws so much attention the other four guys need to use that to their advantage," Kennedy said. "We watched Chris way too much and standing around as he was drawing double and triple teams, as opposed to reacting and playing advantages off the ball.”
On the offensive end, Steele added 17 points after draining five 3-pointers Tuesday at Kentucky.
At halftime, Mississippi State will honor former legendary coach Babe McCarthy. On hand will be family members and players from his four SEC championship teams.