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Rebels have work to do, Bulldogs in good spot as NCAA tournament nears

  • Ole Miss and Mississippi State’s men’s basketball teams fight for a post-season spot. Maybe they can pull it off.

Mississippi State got its first road win of the year Saturday night. More importantly, perhaps, the Bulldogs got back to basics on defense.

The question is now can they bottle the momentum and turn it into something meaningful to enhance their NCAA Tournament seeding. A couple of big wins has the Bulldogs (16-8, 5-6 SEC) in a good spot in the NCAA Net Rankings.

Ole Miss (18-5, 5-5 SEC) would like to find its own momentum after two-straight losses and facing a road challenge at Kentucky Tuesday night.

If the Bulldogs weren’t able to get a road win, 75-51 at Missouri, you had to question if they’d be able to do it all this year. The Tigers are winless in the league regardless of venue.

There’s no rule that says you have to win in somebody else’s gym to make the NCAA Tournament, but for State, the inability to do so has decreased the resume impact it should be receiving from home wins against Tennessee and Auburn.

The Bulldogs are off Wednesday and carry a NET Ranking of 36 into the week. They face Arkansas at 1 p.m. at The Hump on Saturday. The Razorbacks, 3-7 in the league, are coming off a 78-75 home win against Georgia but have been walloped more than once this season.

In spite of a 32-point loss at Alabama, State’s not bad off. Those Tennessee and Auburn games are doing some heavy lifting on the resume right now.

When Tolu Smith and Josh Hubbard are in a groove this team has special capabilities.

Jans got them into March Madness last year, his first in Starkville, but just barely. The Dayton community loves its basketball and has worked hard to make the First Four a big event, but there’s a stigma attached when your NCAA appearance starts there, and it’s a glaring one if the road ends there as it did last year when the Bulldogs lost 60-59 to Pittsburgh.

When you watch this team for stretches of play this season greater achievement is a reasonable expectation.

Jans thinks so. He’s been bothered of late by the Bulldogs’ defense. They forced 16 turnovers against Tennessee and held Auburn to 33.9% shooting.

In losses at Ole Miss and Alabama the Bulldogs committed 33 turnovers while forcing 18. They forced just seven turnovers against the Rebels.

They were better at home against Georgia, but the Athens Bulldogs aren’t among the SEC’s better teams this year.

Jans wanted to see State enforce its will on the road, and the Bulldogs were able to do that.

“We’re trying to kind of get back to our baseline. Last year’s team was one of the better teams at turning people over, and we generated a lot of offense off our defense. Our offensive numbers are better this year, and it’s almost like we’d gotten away from who we need to be and how we need to play,” Jans said in his Missouri postgame.

That it came against Missouri is just the way the ball bounces. You play the games as they appear.

State forced 20 turnovers against the Tigers leading to 14 points.

“We talked a lot and tried to get them a little more revved up on the ball and dictating more on the ball, trying to speed people up with the idea of hopefully scoring off our defense. We were able to do that,” Jans said.

Cameron Matthews, often high-energy without external motivation, was revved up even more. He had seven steals and managed to play aggressively without getting in foul trouble, something that’s been a problem for him this season.

Matthews fouled just twice and played a team-high 34 minutes.

It was a good first step for State, and you can’t have a second step before a first one.

Ole Miss needs to take steps too.

The Rebels have a solid road win in their pocket, a 71-68 decision at Texas A&M on Jan. 27, but they missed a golden opportunity with a late scoring draught in a 68-65 loss at No. 15 South Carolina in their last game.

Ole Miss was 17 points back with 15 minutes, 42 seconds left and had cut the Gamecocks’ lead to 62-60 with 7:03 remaining.

“There were no adjustments, just trying to get back to what the original game plan was supposed to be. We wanted to be the most aggressive team, understanding that would open us up for some weaknesses, but in the first half we did not do that. I did think we were the more aggressive team in the second half, and that’s why we got it back to a one-possession game,” Ole Miss coach Chris Beard said in his postgame.

The Rebels were an SEC surprise at the beginning of the season given their three-win conference season a year ago necessitated a new coach and a mostly new roster.

The conference, though, has caught up with the Rebels. They have no marquee wins like State has, but they’ve got an opportunity for one in Lexington.

This isn’t one of John Calipari’s better Kentucky teams, but that just means they’ve dropped from elite to very good. At 16-7 and 6-4 in the league the Cats are in contention for a double-bye at the SEC Tournament.

Ole Miss is No. 58 in the Net Rankings. Television commentators during the South Carolina game referred to them as an NCAA Tournament team, but the Rebels have real work to do in that regard.

March will soon be upon us, and it’s looking now like the Bulldogs are the state’s best chance to land in the sports landscape’s most exciting event.

Maybe they can pull it off.

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