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Mississippi State hopes to be better on...

Mississippi State hopes to be better on the boards against No. 1 Tennessee – well, somebody’s No. 1

By: Parrish Alford - January 9, 2024

(Photo from Mississippi State MBB on X)

The previously undefeated Ole Miss Rebels got a first-hand look at Tennessee on Saturday in a 90-64 loss. Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans knows where the Bulldogs have to be better.

Chris Jans was reminded of an important college basketball truth Saturday afternoon– that memories should be short.

There was a glaring home loss to a 1-6 SWAC team, one that could be haunting depending on what happens from here, but the Bulldogs were largely consistent going 11-2 in pre-SEC play.

All but one game of that was without their best player, forward Tolu Smith.

But with Smith back in the lineup for the second time the anticipated rebounding boost in a 68-62 SEC-opening loss at South Carolina didn’t materialize.

The Bulldogs hadn’t exactly been lacking in that department – third in the SEC and 25thin the country through their first 13 games – but neither had the Gamecocks.

South Carolina was plus-9 on the glass, plus-7 in offensive rebounds and held a 16-6 edge in second-chance points.

Now the Bulldogs face a daunting stretch with Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky – the latter on the road – over the next three games.

“When you start your conference slate there’s not a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to turn the page quickly, try to learn and grow and get back at it,” Jans told local media Monday.

Jans can take the time-honored next-game-up approach, but fans often look at the schedule in a different way. Maybe they feel a little sympathy for the Bulldogs against the No. 1 Vols. 

Tennessee isn’t No. 1 according to the rankings – they’re No. 5 according to Associated Press voters – but Ole Miss coach Chris Beard believes the Vols are the best team in the land.

The Rebels got a first-hand look at Tennessee on Saturday in a 90-64 loss. The Rebels won their 13 pre-conference games, but their stay in the top 25 ended Monday.

“Those are some grown men over there. We’re sitting here today, and they’re probably the No. 1 team in the country,” he said in his postgame presser in Knoxville.

If the Bulldogs are going to keep the Vols from a one Mississippi, two Mississippi opening week sweep they’re going to have to be better on the boards.

Smith was back for the Gamecocks, his second appearance, and was a factor, but 6-foot-10 West Virginia transfer Jimmy Bell, who had played well in the pre-conference with almost 10 rebounds a game, had zero in Columbia.

“Jimmy Bell, and I love him to death, but there’s no way he can play the minutes he played (20) and get zero rebounds,” Jans said.

Smith had 13 points and four rebounds and was one of three players who’s availability was limited by foul trouble before he ultimately fouled out.

Smith was 4-for-6 from the floor and 5-for-5 from the free throw line, an area he’s worked hard to improve.

Beard and the Rebels are also at home Wednesday against Florida (10-4, 0-1) which narrowly missed an upset against Kentucky with an 87-85 loss.

The Gators, playing at home, were up eight at halftime.

Ironically, the last Ole Miss team to start 13-0, Andy Kennedy’s Chris Warren-led squad in 2008, also lost its SEC opener at Tennessee.

The outcome was much closer at 85-83. Warren was 4-for-12 from the arc and led Ole Miss with 24 points.

Scoring was harder for Beard’s Ole Miss team, but he left a tough environment with a warm fuzzy.

“For the first 19 minutes I thought we went head-to-head, nose-to-nose with one of the best college basketball teams in the country,” he said.

The reality is Beard has the Rebels, just 12-21 last year, way ahead of the game. 

“Nobody can take away those 13-straight wins. That’s an important thing for any team, to string wins together,” he said.

They weren’t supposed to be 13-0 in the non-conference. They could have taken an L or two in some closer games, but they didn’t, and they were better in December than they were in November.

If that trend continues the Rebels will continue to surprise.

It’s where Beard was a year ago.

Beard has a nose for the NCAA Tournament, getting New Mexico State there three times. It would have been a fourth had not the 2020 event been cancelled.

Tennessee enters The Hump at plus-6.0 in rebound margin, sixth in the SEC and 55thnationally.

Jans knows where the Bulldogs have to be better.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to corral those loose balls that are flying in the air and are 50-50. We’ve got to find a way to get them. The way our team’s constructed, we have to be a good rebounding team to win. That was the one thing I talked about most after the game, and heck, during a lot of timeouts,” he said.

About the Author(s)
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Parrish Alford

Parrish Alford brings the cumulative wisdom that comes from three decades of covering Mississippi sports to Magnolia Tribune. His outstanding contributions to sports reporting in the state have twice been recognized with Sports Writer of the Year awards. Alford currently serves as the associate editor of American Family News.