Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
The Missouri men’s basketball team is currently riding a five-game losing streak, extended Wednesday by an 88-54 drubbing at the hands of Kentucky. But there could be light at the end of the tunnel for the Tigers.
Following back-to-back road games against top-20 teams, Missouri gets a game against Mississippi State today (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) at Mizzou Arena that’s as winnable as any the Tigers have left on the schedule. For one, it’s at home, where all eight of the Missouri’s wins have come. And second, it’s against a Bulldogs team that shares a basement-dwelling 1-6 Southeastern Conference record with Missouri.
Missouri (8-12) and Mississippi State (8-11) have played four mutual opponents: Texas A&M, Arkansas, Kentucky and South Carolina — all of which resulted in losses for both teams. Missouri lost by an average of 15 more points in those games, though.
“They’ve played everybody close,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said of the Bulldogs in this week’s SEC coaches teleconference.
Like Missouri, the Bulldogs have a new coach roaming the sidelines. Ben Howland is in his first season with Mississippi State, though unlike Anderson, who inherited an inexperienced roster last season, Howland’s first team is a mature one.
“My thing is I want to do the very best job I can here in Year 1 to help these seniors feel good about their last year,” Howland said in the teleconference, “and that was the whole mantra going into the season.”
The Bulldogs have a starting lineup’s worth of players averaging double-digit scoring totals. Gavin Ware leads Mississippi State with 15.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
“I think he’s done a great job,” Howland said. “He’s had double figures in every game but one. He’s embraced the idea of getting more post touches and scoring inside close to the basket. He’s shooting an incredible percentage from the field. He’s in the best shape of his life, which has really helped him because we’re trying to play him as many minutes as possible.”
Also in double figures are Malik Newman (13.4), Craig Sword (12.5), I.J. Ready (10.7) and Quinndary Weatherspoon (10.4). Weatherspoon, one of two freshmen starting for the Bulldogs, has come on of late, averaging 18.5 points in his last four games.
“He started a few games earlier in the season and pressed a little bit,” Howland said, “but it’s just with experience (he’s improved). I’m so excited about his growth from where he was in June to where he is right now.”
Kevin Puryear (11.4) and Wes Clark (10.5) are the lone double-digit scorers for Missouri.
The Tigers and Bulldogs each rank in the bottom four of the SEC in scoring margin, rebounds per game and free-throw attempts. Unlike Missouri, Mississippi State does have a handful of upper-tier SEC rankings: first in free-throw percentage, third in field-goal percentage and fourth in steals.
Mississippi State’s lone SEC win came against Mississippi, which Missouri has not yet played. Howland said it was big to get that first conference win out of the way.
“There’s no question, to get the monkey off our back” was important, he said. “We had five previous (SEC) games and we were in all five, and four of them had a chance to win in the last two minutes. It’s tough. It’s a positive no one’s blowing us out … but to finally get over the hump is very important.”
The Bulldogs’ resume is marred by a pair of non-conference losses to mid-major teams. Mississippi State fell by four points at home to Southern and by five at Missouri: Kansas City, which spoiled Anderson’s debut at Missouri with a win last season at Mizzou Arena.
With the exception of a historically bad 34-point loss against Arkansas, Missouri has been relatively strong at home, beating Auburn by 15 points and falling three points short of a win against Georgia. Mississippi State, like Missouri, has yet to win a road game this season.
Last year, Mississippi State took both ends of a home-and-home with Missouri, winning by three in Columbia and by nine in Starkville, Miss.