Ben Howland has won his share of conference games during his two decades as a head coach.
But so far during Howland’s first season at Mississippi State, a victory in league play has eluded him. The Bulldogs have started 0-3 in SEC action for the second straight year but look to turns things around at 2:30 p.m. today on SEC Network taking on Tennessee.
“A win would mean everything,” Howland said. “We need to get our first ‘W’. Our best chance is our next game.”
MSU is 7-8 overall and has been competitive in each of its three league losses. The Bulldogs dropped a 61-60 decision to now 15th-ranked Texas A&M at home then had back-to-back road losses at Arkansas and No. 14 Kentucky in which it was a 3-point game with five minutes remaining in both.
Against the Wildcats, it was a one possession game until the final 48 seconds.
“It’s tough when you lose close games,” Howland said. “But I guess I’d rather lose close games than get blown out by 30. We’ve fought and been competitive the whole way through and shows that we’re not that far away.”
Tennessee (8-8, 1-3 SEC) is also off to a slow start in conference play under first-year coach Rick Barnes. The Volunteers have also lost close battles at Auburn 83-77 and against Texas A&M 92-88.
Tennessee does own an 83-69 win over Florida but is coming off an 81-72 loss at Georgia on Wednesday.
The Vols possess one of the league’s top offensive weapons in their backcourt in Kevin Punter Jr. The 6-foot-2 senior ranks second in the SEC scoring 22.4 points and is averaging 23 points in conference play.
“Punter in-particular is incredible,” Howland said. “He’s the second leading scorer in the SEC right now and really is a special talent. He’s very, very good. He’s really worked on his shot in the offseason spending countless hours and it’s really paid off for him because he’s really playing well.”
Gavin Ware has also been playing well for Mississippi State all season. The senior forward has scored in double figures in all 15 games and currently leads the league shooting 65 percent from the field. Ware tops the Bulldogs with 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Tennessee leads the overall series 79-42 and holds a 28-27 edge in Starkville. The Volunteers have claimed four of the last five meetings and two straight at Humphrey Coliseum.
The two teams split last year’s series with Tennessee winning 61-47 in Starkville behind 15 points from Punter and the Bulldogs returning the favor in Knoxville 71-66 with Craig Sword scoring 26 points and Fred Thomas adding 20 off the bench.