Arkansas and Mississippi State each had a February to forget, but with postseason play right around the corner, both teams march forward with something to prove.
Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs have won seven SEC games, and the average margin of victory has been 4.1 points.
The Razorbacks and Bulldogs play at 4 p.m. Saturday inside Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss., a place where Arkansas has lost 11 consecutive times. It’s the regular-season finale for both teams.
“Last game of the conference season, so that means it’s a one-game season,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said of Saturday’s matchup, which will be televised by Fox Sports Net. “We’re looking forward to going on the road and hopefully having an opportunity to steal one.”
Arkansas has done that one time this season, winning 77-71 at Auburn on Feb. 25. That was a rare victory for the Razorbacks (18-12, 6-9 SEC) in February. The Hogs went 2-6 during the month, including a three-game losing streak and a stretch where they lost five of six games.
Mississippi State (20-10, 7-8) wasn’t much better, going 3-5 during the month, including a five-game losing streak.
However, as Anderson pointed out, records mean nothing after Saturday’s game. The SEC Tournament starts next Thursday in New Orleans.
“You want to finish up strong,” Anderson said. “And with that being said, when that season’s over with, now it’s a new season. It’s a season that everyone looks forward to, and that is tournament play. And that’s an opportunity for everyone to have an opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament. The winner (of the SEC Tournament) goes to the (NCAA) Tournament. So there’s still a lot to play for.”
Arkansas and Mississippi State opened conference play against each other Jan. 7, and the Razorbacks beat the then-No. 15 Bulldogs 98-88 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Hogs shot 56.5 percent from the floor in that game and got 24 points apiece from junior guard Julysses Nobles and freshman guard B.J. Young.
The Razorbacks and Bulldogs each have played 14 SEC games since then.
Anderson said he’s expecting a different Mississippi State team in this matchup and noted that the Bulldogs are coming off a big road win, beating South Carolina 69-67 Wednesday night when senior guard Brian Bryant hit a buzzer-beating shot in overtime.
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson has a 2-3 all-time record against Mississippi State.
“You can’t question the talent level on that team,” Anderson said. “And I think if history serves you right, if look at their team, it just seems like when people don’t think it’s going the direction that Mississippi State should be going, that’s when they play some of their better basketball. So (Mississippi State Coach Rick) Stansbury’s done a very good job of being in those situations and coming out looking good.”
But Stansbury’s Bulldogs went from being almost a shoo-in in January to make the NCAA Tournament to finding themselves on the bubble and needing a strong finish.
“Well, whenever you don’t win some games in a row, you can get there in a hurry, and that’s what we’ve done,” Stansbury said of being on the NCAA bubble and his team’s five-game losing streak, which ended Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’ve played bad. Scheduling has had a little bit to do with it. Three of four on the road, one home game against Kentucky. I think we’ve had one bad loss that really haunts you (and that) is the Georgia home loss. I think two of those losses have been in overtime.”
Mississippi State found out in the previous matchup with Arkansas that it couldn’t run with the Razorbacks, committing 18 turnovers, including a season-worst six by senior point guard Dee Bost.
But Anderson doesn’t feel like his Razorbacks are playing as well defensively now as in the previous game against Mississippi State.
“I thought we were on task in being in the right place. Defensively, I thought we were a lot better than we are right now,” Anderson said. “I keep saying, a lot of things have happened to this team. When you look at our team now, it’s different than it was in the beginning of conference play. What I mean by that, you have guys that have been injured.
“And with injuries, (there’s lost) practice time, game time, and now of course Brandon Mitchell has put himself into the equation in terms of helping our basketball team as well.”
Anderson was on Arkansas’ bench as an assistant coach the last time the Razorbacks won in Starkville, an 87-81 win on Feb. 12, 2000. He said he doesn’t really remember much about the game, and he downplayed the losing streak at Humphrey Coliseum.
“No. 1, every game is a different game,” Anderson said. “It has different characteristics. It’s going to have a different storyline. We played Mississippi State earlier in the year, and according to a lot of people, we weren’t supposed to win that one. So to me, it’s a great opportunity. When you ask me the question, what are you playing for, t’s a great opportunity. We tasted a victory on the road last time out. Maybe we learned something. We’ll see.”
SEC Tournament scenario
Arkansas will be the No. 7, 8 or 9 seed in the SEC Tournament next week. A loss Saturday at Mississippi State would guarantee the Hogs are either the eighth or ninth seed. They escaped the possibility of being a No. 10 seed when Georgia lost at Kentucky on Thursday.
Here’s the breakdown of the scenario for Arkansas, according to the UA sports information department:
No. 7 seed Arkansas wins Saturday, and LSU and Ole Miss lose; or Arkansas wins, LSU loses at Auburn, and Ole Miss wins at home against Alabama.
No. 8 seed Arkansas wins, Ole Miss loses, and LSU wins; or Arkansas wins and LSU and Ole Miss win.
No. 9 seed Arkansas loses.