The Mississippi State Bulldogs reeled off ten wins during the non-conference portion of their 2013-14 basketball schedule, and while the team managed to tie their win total from the previous year, many who watch basketball could not help but note that the wins had come against weak competition.
To be fair, those who scoffed had a fair enough reason to do so. Ken Pomeroy ranked the Bulldogs' out of conference schedule as the weakest in the nation. Of course, the Bulldogs needed that schedule as Rick Ray and company have basically had to rebuild the team from scratch over the last season and a half. Coming into their game against Kentucky, the Bulldogs had victories over (RPI from Live-RPI.com) Prairie View A&M (274), Kennesaw State (289), Mississippi Valley State (309), Jackson State (196), Loyola (307), Southeastern Louisiana (253), Florida A&M (257), Florida Gulf Coast (212), South Florida (177), and Maryland-Eastern Shore (304). This an average RPI of 258 for opponents beaten by the Bulldogs. Mississippi State had also suffered three out of conference losses: Utah State (97), TCU (181), and UNLV (141). One could hardly call that a murderers' row of foes.
With a trip to Lexington scheduled to open SEC play, things looked like they could get pretty rough for Ray's crew, but any who watched the game and not the final score realized that Mississippi State gave the Wildcats all that they wanted for the first 27 minutes of the game. The Bulldogs even managed to take a halftime lead against Kentucky (15). While moral victories only count for so much, especially when a team ends up taking an 85-63 loss, the trip to Lexington should have given Bulldog players and fans confidence for the rest of the season.
That season continued Saturday against Ole Miss at the Humphrey Coliseum. The Rebels came into the game following a victory against the Auburn Tigers, but they would have to play without Marshall Henderson. Even without their leading scorer, the Rebels presented a formidable foe, and while certainly not on the level of Kentucky, a win over Ole Miss would be the biggest for the Bulldogs to date this season and perhaps for Ray's tenure in Starkville since expectations of victory had started to develop this year.
The Bulldogs have looked for players to step up on this young squad to become leaders, and through a gritty victory Saturday night, those players may well have identified themselves. Craig Sword, a player who has looked the part of team leader most of the season, exploded against the Rebels. The guard finished the game with 15 points, 15 of 18 from the charity stripe, to offset an 0 for 7 night from the floor. He also snagged five rebounds, dished out four assists, and played solid defense, swiping seven steals. His partner in the backcourt I. J. Ready had a solid game of his own, scoring ten points and picking up four assists.
Roquez Johnson proved to be the surprise of the night, logging 27 minutes and scoring 20 points as he went 7 of 11 from the field. He also pulled down seven rebounds in the contest.
The Bulldogs did not win the battle on the boards, a battle they will rarely win this season, but they did all of the other things needed to win. They forced Ole Miss to turn the ball over 16 times to nine for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs managed to shoot 67% from the free throw line, an important stat on the night that the team shot below 20% from three-point range. Perhaps most importantly with a short bench, the Bulldogs only gave up 13 fouls in the game.
Will this win be the start of a magical turnaround that sees Mississippi State reach the NCAA tournament? That is highly unlikely. However, the game should show Ray, his players and the fans that with defensive effort, quality free throw shooting and protection of the basketball, this team can pick up a good number of wins in the SEC. If they manage to do that, it should be fun to see how the Bulldogs finish the season.