(AP) Mississippi’s basketball program has been on a roll the past three seasons, with two trips to the NCAA Tournament, one Southeastern Conference Tournament championship and a brand new $96.5 million arena.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State has been among the worst teams in the SEC.
But the gap between the two rivals has narrowed substantially over the past few months. Now Mississippi State (13-15, 6-10 SEC) has a chance to further solidify its resurgence when it travels to face Ole Miss (18-11, 8-8) on Wednesday night.
The Bulldogs have a 6-5 record over its past 11 SEC games, knocking off potential NCAA Tournament teams like South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Alabama in the process. First-year Mississippi State coach Ben Howland says improved defense is the reason for the turnaround.
“Everything starts at that end of the floor,” Howland said. “It’s nice to see how hard our guys are trying at that end.”
Mississippi State also has a talented offensive duo that includes freshman guard Quinndary Weatherspoon and senior forward Gavin Ware. Weatherspoon leads the team with 14.8 points per game in conference play while Ware is shooting nearly 62 percent from the field this season, which easily leads the SEC.
The Bulldogs also have a group of good veteran defenders on the wing, including Craig Sword, Fred Thomas and Travis Daniels, who have made it tough for opponents to get good shots.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who is in his 10th year leading the program, had plenty of praise for both Weatherspoon and Ware. He was particularly high on Weatherspoon, who he also recruited out of a small high school in central Mississippi.
“He’s really surged to the forefront as one of the best freshmen in our league with his play,” Kennedy said. “Confidence is a funny thing and once that kid got his legs under him and really started feeling confident about his ability to perform at this level, he’s been tremendous.”
Ole Miss is in the midst of a mildly disappointing season. The Rebels have guard Stefan Moody, who leads the league with more than 22 points per game, but have struggled to put a consistent team around him.
It’s led to a few impressive wins and some frustrating losses. Ole Miss still harbored slim hopes of an NCAA Tournament at-large berth until Saturday, when Georgia pulled away in the second half to beat the Rebels 80-66.
“My hope is we can regroup,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got a big opportunity on Wednesday.”
Mississippi State has already beaten Ole Miss once this season — 83-77 in Starkville. But the Rebels were without three starters that game, including Moody, forward Sebastian Saiz and guard Martavious Newby.
Those three are now back and the game is in Oxford. Plus, it’ll be Senior Night.
Kennedy hopes that’s enough to get his team fired up.
“It’s hard to believe we’re in the last week” of SEC play, Kennedy said. “We hope to finish strong.”