A victory tonight would mean a ticket out of the musty cellar of the Southeastern Conference West Division, and what better way to compete for that prize than to play before a national television audience?
Ole Miss (13-8, 2-5 SEC) and Mississippi State (11-8, 2-4) will renew their rivalry for the second time in three weeks tonight at Tad Smith Coliseum, where ESPN will train its cameras on two programs trying to emerge from the conference's lower tier. Which would mean something if the rest of the SEC West weren't mired in mediocrity. One game separates last-place Ole Miss from first-place Arkansas and Auburn, both 3-4 in conference play.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State are both coming off losses over the weekend, but there were differences in the quality of those games. The Rebels nearly upset Vanderbilt before falling, 85-80, while Mississippi State lost at home -- a rarity in the SEC -- to South Carolina, 63-57.
"You can't feel sorry for yourself," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "You've got to get up off the mat."
Ole Miss attempts more than 19 3-pointers per game, and never was the Rebels' tendency to drift to the perimeter more apparent than during their 77-67 loss at Mississippi State on Jan. 10. The Rebels seemed to realize almost immediately that they would have trouble against the Bulldogs' larger frontcourt, so they "chose the path of least resistance," coach Andy Kennedy said, and hoisted 32 3-point shots.
"That's something we'll make sure to correct," Kennedy added.
Stansbury said the Rebels have improved over the past three weeks, and he doubts they will be as one-dimensional tonight.
"It's shown on the road," he said. "They've been down and been able to get back into games."
Against Vanderbilt, Ole Miss trailed by as many as 16 points late in the first half but tied the score midway through the second half. Senior guard Todd Abernethy, usually the team's most reliable player, missed a pair of free throws with less than three minutes remaining, and the Commodores escaped.
The Rebels will seek to rebound tonight, and they are appealing for fan support. The Ole Miss Student Spirit Committee will hold a pep rally outside the Coliseum at 4 p.m., and the committee is offering financial incentive: The student who exhibits the most school spirit will win $100.