By John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal
This seems like a simple question: Which of the men’s basketball teams in the state is best? Go look at the rankings on Page 2 of the NEMS Daily Journal newspaper and you’ll think the answer is an easy one. After all, Mississippi State (9-1) is the only state team in both major polls – 17th in the AP media poll and 18th in the coaches poll – while Ole Miss (8-1) and Southern Miss (5-2) aren’t getting any votes.
I’m not an AP poll voter this season, but I was last year and also in 2008-09, and I thought MSU was woefully underrated in this preseason – unranked in either poll and relegated to the fine print in the ESPN magazine’s preview.
Preseason voters tend to lean too much on last year’s results, of course, but folks around here knew the Bulldogs’ roster should be loaded, especially with 6-foot-11 UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie ready to toughen them up inside.
The current poll results tell you this MSU team has begun to win over its skeptics.
The Bulldogs have a pretty decent resume so far. They’ve won eight games in a row since an inexplicable homecourt loss to Akron, including back-to-back wins over ranked opponents Texas A&M and Arizona on consecutive days.
Fans of Ole Miss and, yes, Southern Miss also have reasons to feel good about their teams.
Southern Miss, in fact, is ranked ahead of both state SEC teams in the Sagarin ratings published by USA Today. Sagarin says the Golden Eagles would be about 10 points better on their own floor than Ole Miss – a thesis we’ll see tested on Saturday when the Rebels visits Hattiesburg.
Could either the Golden Eagles or Rebels really be better than the Bulldogs?
I don’t get too excited at seeing the Rebels at No. 9 in at least one set of RPI numbers – you know, the Ratings Percentage Index used by the NCAA to help pick at-large teams for the Big Dance in March. That has more to do with quality of opponents in games played so far than on-court performance.
As they say, “your mileage may vary.”
But Ole Miss has some interesting pieces, including an infusion of young talent, and Southern Miss might finally be ready for a long-awaited breakthrough under head coach Larry Eustachy.
So with three teams starved for a return to the NCAA tournament – MSU has missed the last two seasons, Ole Miss hasn’t been since 2002 and Southern’s last trip was in 1991 – the new year should dawn with all three in the conversation.
John L. Pitts (firstname.lastname@example.org) is sports editor of the Journal.