Ben Howland has been a part of many heated rivalries in his two decades as a head coach.
In his first year at Mississippi State, Howland will get his first glimpse into the in-state rivalry between his Bulldogs and Ole Miss when the two hit the hardwood at 1 p.m. today on SEC Network.
“I’ve been in rivalries before but this one is very, very special,” Howland said. “The people here at Mississippi State care more about beating Ole Miss than they do any other game of the year.”
MSU has dropped four straight to the Rebels and were swept last season – losing 79-73 in Oxford and then 71-65 in Humphrey Coliseum. The Bulldogs do own a 141-111 lead in the overall series and hold a 93-25 advantage in Starkville.
Any victory would be big for the Bulldogs at this point having started 0-5 in Southeastern Conference play for the first time 1985-86. State (7-10) has been within one possession with five minutes or less left in all five league defeats, losing by an average of 5.8 points.
“Even though we haven’t had a win yet, we haven’t been blown out of any game where we didn’t have a chance,” Howland said. “They know that they’re right there.”
The Bulldogs are coming off another close loss on Tuesday. Mississippi State fell 81-78 at Florida, unable to hang onto a lead in the final 46 seconds.
“We know we have all the tools to win games,” said MSU guard Craig Sword. “We just have to put it all together. Everybody feels confident going into the game. We hope to pull out a win.”
Sword missed practice on Thursday with a shoulder injury but stated he would be able to play today.
The Bulldogs are led by senior forward Gavin Ware with 16.4 points and 7.6 rebounds. Ware had his streak of scoring in double figures snapped at 16 games earlier this week with just five points and one rebound in 15 minutes of play before fouling out.
Ole Miss (12-6, 2-4 SEC) also enters today’s game on a skid. The Rebels have dropped three straight including a 77-74 overtime loss at home to South Carolina on Tuesday.
Ole Miss will be without the inside presence of Sebastian Saiz but still has the SEC’s top scorer in senior guard Stefan Moody. Moody averages 24.3 points and scored 29 including eight 3-pointers in his previous outing against the Bulldogs.
“Moody is an incredible athlete,” Howland said. “He combines skill with being a really great competitor. He reminds me of Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson from the University of Washington. He can hurt you in so many ways, not just scoring. He’s range is amazing but he’s also a great passer and a tough defender.”