Andy Kennedy wishes he had the time and energy to get worked up over the rivalry aspect of Wednesday's Mississippi-Mississippi State basketball game in Oxford.
But after two straight losses, a tumble out of the Top 25 and injuries to core players, the Ole Miss coach said his team simply needs to win a game — any game.
"We're on a two-game losing streak and whether it's the Mississippi State Bulldogs or the Los Angeles Lakers that come in here on Wednesday, we've got to stop this," Kennedy said on Monday. "We've put too much work into this. We're in Week 5 of a nine-week grind that is the SEC season. The first three weeks were pretty good to us. Week four was a tough week. We've got to bounce back from that."
Ole Miss (17-4, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) had its nine-game winning streak snapped last week at home against Kentucky and then was walloped on the road by No. 2 Florida on Saturday. The Rebels didn't just lose two games in the process — they also lost sophomore forward Aaron Jones to a season-ending knee injury.
But there is some good news. Senior guard Nick Williams — who missed the Florida game with a foot injury — is expected to return against the Bulldogs.
Williams is averaging nearly 10 points per game, but it's the fifth-year guard's leadership that is most crucial.
"I'm sure there will be an emotional lift," Kennedy said. "He is the elder statesman on our team and he's been with (Murphy Holloway) and (Reginald Buckner) their entire time. Those guys, man, they know they're all in this together and it's great to have their brother back."
Mississippi State (7-13, 2-6) also just experienced a tough week, losing back-to-back close games to Texas A&M and LSU on its home court. The Bulldogs have now lost six straight and have struggled all season with a youthful, thin roster that's had some good moments but mostly struggled.
First-year coach Rick Ray said the Bulldogs must be ready for Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, who is averaging an SEC-best 19.5 points per game.
Henderson specializes in the 3-point shot, making nearly four per game this season. Ray said it's imperative that his defense makes Henderson's shots difficult, and it's equally important that the Bulldogs don't ignore the rest of the Rebels — especially post players like Holloway and Buckner.
Holloway is the only player in the SEC averaging a double-double with 14.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
"They're big, physical strong kids where you're talking about a fifth-year senior (Holloway) and a senior (Buckner) so the body types are a concern," Ray said. "You can't have your post guys so involved with Marshall Henderson's screening that they become bad defenders on the ball. If you over help, it exposes you inside. Everybody gets so concerned about Marshall Henderson, but those guys are good at screening and then rolling to the basket for looks."
But more than the Rebels, the Bulldogs are focused on themselves.
Poor execution in the final minutes of the Texas A&M and LSU losses is still fresh on Ray's mind. And the games don't get any easier this week with road trips to Ole Miss and Florida.
"We had a chance to get healthy at home and we bypassed that opportunity and now we have the more difficult task of trying to get wins on the road against two quality teams," Ray said.
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