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Mississippi State coming in hot to rivalry tussle

Barring a rematch in next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament, Ole Miss will take on Mississippi State for the second and final time this season tonight (6 p.m., SEC Network) at the

Pavilion in the Rebels’ home finale.

The Bulldogs are feeling much better about themselves this time around.

Mississippi State isn’t playing like a team that’s been stuck near the bottom of the league standings all season. The Bulldogs (13-15, 6-10 SEC) are still a candidate to play the only game on the first day of the SEC Tournament next Wednesday but could play their way out of the virtual play-in game with two games to go in the regular season thanks to a turnaround under first-year coach Ben Howland.

Mississippi State’s rough start in the non-conference portion of its schedule trickled into the beginning of conference play as the Bulldogs lost eight of their first 10 SEC games. But the steady presence of senior forward Gavin Ware (15.6 points, 7.5 rebounds), the emergence of freshman guard Quinndary Weatherspoon and a renewed sense of urgency on the defensive end have helped the Bulldogs win three of their last four games and four of their last six, including victories over likely NCAA Tournament teams Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

The lone loss in the last two weeks was a two-point setback last Wednesday at Texas A&M, which would be the top seed next week in Nashville, Tennessee, if the SEC Tournament started today.

“Offensively they have figured out their identity,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “They play through the post, and they’ve got guys now that are very complementary to one another. I think they’re playing their best basketball at the right time of the year.”

Weatherspoon’s play has overshadowed that of fellow freshman guard Malik Newman, who came in with lofty expectations as one of the top prep players in the nation. The 6-foot-4 Weatherspoon is averaging 12 points a game and shooting 46.3 percent from the field, including a team-best 38.7 percent from 3-point range.

“He had the physical attributes to come and do what he’s done in Year 1 at this level,” said Kennedy, who also recruited Weatherspoon out of Velma Jackson. “I give him great credit as I do the Mississippi State staff for developing him and putting him in a position to be successful. He has really, really surged to the forefront as one of the best freshman in all of our league with his play.”

Getting defensive
The Bulldogs still rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring (74.9 points per game), but the defense has helped. Mississippi State is allowing just 62.1 points over the last six games — more than 10 points less than its season average.

“That’s what has made the difference for us,” Howland said. “We’re finally really competing at that end, which is what you have to do night in and night out to have a chance in a great conference like this conference.”

One of those early league wins for Mississippi State came against Ole Miss, an 83-77 victory on Jan. 23 in Starkville. The Rebels  (18-11, 8-8) will be at full strength this time after making the trip to Humphrey Coliseum with Stefan Moody, Sebastian Saiz and Martavious Newby all unavailable because of injuries.

Coming off a loss at Georgia on Saturday, it’s likely the Rebels will have to repeat their 2013 magic at the SEC Tournament to get back to the NCAA Tournament. But Ole Miss has won both of its home games since Saiz’s return in mid-February and would like to enjoy one more against its in-state rival.

“My hope is that we can regroup,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got a big opportunity in our last game in the Pavilion for four of our seniors that have been key parts of our program, and my hope is they’ll be excited about that.”