Today’s winner will be the No. 3 Western Division seed next week in Tampa.
By Brad Locke
OXFORD – It has been a long and costly journey for Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Both teams are quite different from last year’s editions, full of youth and promise but bearing the scars of misfortune that the 2008-09 season has wrought.
For the second time this year, the rivals cross paths today in the regular season finale. Tipoff at Tad Smith Coliseum is 4 p.m.
It’s been arguably a tougher road for the Rebels (16-13, 7-8 SEC). Three starters, including point guard Chris Warren, were lost early to knee injuries.
And heading into today’s battle for third place in the Western Division, leading scorer David Huertas is battling a bruised foot. He missed Wednesday’s win over Arkansas and will be a game time decision today.
Preseason visions of an SEC title have been long dashed, but the Rebs’ season hasn’t been a lost one.
Entering the teams’ first matchup on Jan. 31 – Ole Miss won 67-63 in Starkville – the Rebels were 2-4 in SEC play but coming off a win against Kentucky. MSU was 4-1 in the league and a surprise contender in the West.
Both teams have had their ups and downs since.
“I thought if we had our full team we could win the league,” Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway said, “but when we had all those injuries … Coach said then he didn’t know how many we might win, but he had faith in us and told us to have faith in ourselves. That’s what we did.”
Coach Andy Kennedy had to turn to young, unproven players like freshman Terrico White, who had never played the point. He’s now a frontrunner for the SEC Freshman of the Year award, and in league games, he tops the Rebels with 18.3 points and 2.9 assists per game.
“Terrico White’s one of the most difficult matchups in this league with his strength and athleticism, ability to shoot, ability off the bounce,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “He’s just a difficult matchup no matter who you put on him.”
The task of guarding White will fall to another freshman, MSU’s Dee Bost. White got the best of Bost in their last meeting, scoring 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Bost finished with 13 on 3-of-11 shooting.
Thrust into action
Like White, Bost entered the season with no point guard experience, but he was recruited to play the position for State (18-12, 8-6).
His transition got immediately tougher when a nagging ankle injury to forward Brian Johnson, State’s lone experienced senior, led Stansbury to reconfigure his starting five; he now has a four-guard set around center Jarvis Varnado.
And on Wednesday, Varnado’s backup, Elgin Bailey, went down with an ankle injury that ended his season.
It’s fallen on Bost to be the pacesetter for the team’s adjustment. Sometimes his inexperience and impatience has shown up, other times he’s played like a veteran.
Like White, he’s up for the SEC top freshman honor, averaging 11.4 points and 4.3 assists per game.
“They wouldn’t be sitting here in the position they’re in without his continued development,” Kennedy said, “and we certainly wouldn’t be sitting here with seven wins in league play without Terrico White having an outstanding season.”
In early January, not many folks would have forecast either MSU or Ole Miss playing each other for the No. 3 West seed in next week’s SEC Tournament. But here they are, two teams limping to the finish line, having accomplished more than conventional wisdom would have allowed.