By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy has his antennae up for Mississippi State point guard Dee Bost, and rightfully so.
But there’s always that shot-blocking thing going on with the Bulldogs, and the Rebels will need to get more production in the lane than they did in Round 1 if they’re going to earn a split of the regular season series with their in-state rival.
With both teams chasing Western Division leader Arkansas and NCAA tournament bids, Ole Miss and Mississippi State meet tonight in Starkville. Tipoff at Humphrey Coliseum is 8 p.m., and the game will be televised by ESPN.
The Rebels (17-6, 5-4 SEC) were up nine with roughly 12 minutes left before Bost led a rally that resulted in an 80-75 win for MSU (16-7, 4-4) in the SEC opener at Ole Miss on Jan. 8.
It was also during that time that MSU coach Rick Stansbury went to a zone defense with senior center Jarvis Varnado lurking in the middle. MSU guards were able to take away open looks on the perimeter, because every time the Rebels challenged Varnado the result was unpleasant. He blocked six shots and altered many others.
“They were caught off-guard,” said Varnado of MSU’s zone switch against Ole Miss. “Our guards stayed with the shooters, and everything in the lane was mine. And we were shooting the ball extremely well.”
The Bulldogs hope to draw on that past success – and some home-crowd energy – tonight. After a 3-0 SEC start, MSU has lost two straight four of its last five. All four losses were on the road.
Vanderbilt’s A.J. Ogilvy and Florida’s Vernon Macklin were able to have an impact in the lane in two MSU road losses last week.
Ole Miss may again be without freshman Reggie Buckner, who had evolved into the team’s top low-post scoring threat when he sprained an ankle at Auburn in late January.
Ole Miss players talk about driving against Varnado, then dishing to the man he leaves open when he goes for the block. That’s a tougher task, however, when the Bulldogs jump into the zone defense, and there are no solid man assignments.
The biggest thing the Rebels need to do against Varnado, Kennedy says, is drive with purpose.
“In our first game a lot of the time we went in trying to figure it out as we go, and that’s when he’s at his best. You have to go in and make sure you get him engaged in the play and then make the proper read.”
While Bost and Varnado can present matchup problems, Stansbury says success will be about shooting for MSU, particularly from Kodi Augustus and Phil Turner.
The Bulldogs average 8.9 3-pointers a game to lead the SEC, but they shot just 29.8 percent at Vanderbilt and Florida.
“With our personnel we have to make shots,” said Stansbury. “When we play small and Kodi and Phil haven’t made shots, it makes it difficult. I can’t change that and play big. But what we don’t have and we’re not getting, you can’t worry about that. It’s what we are and that’s the reality of it.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or parrish.alford@djournal,com