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MSU men open SEC play tonight vs. Arkansas


Mississippi State forward Aric Holman, shown above shooting against Little Rock, and the rest of the Bulldogs will play host to Arkansas at 8 tonight (SEC Network) in their Southeastern Conference opener.

Mississippi State forward Aric Holman, shown above shooting against Little Rock, and the rest of the Bulldogs will play host to Arkansas at 8 tonight (SEC Network) in their Southeastern Conference opener. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


Scott Walters



STARKVILLE -- While the Southeastern Conference has enjoyed a mild resurgence in men's basketball, Mississippi State has spent most of the season in the shadows. 


The league has four ranked teams, while three others earned the distinction earlier in the season. Meanwhile, MSU and Auburn share the best records in the league at 12-1. 


While Auburn is 29 in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which measures a team's strength, MSU's best start since the 2011-12 season has it at No. 74 in the RPI. The fast start includes 11 home games. 


At 8 tonight, MSU will have a chance to prove it is worthy of added consideration when it plays host to No. 22 Arkansas (11-2, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) in its league opener at the Humphrey Coliseum. 


"I think it's time to play some games in the Southeastern Conference," MSU junior guard Xavian Stapleton said. "We are a better basketball team than a lot of people think. We are probably even better than we have shown. Now, it's time to play some big-time opponents. We are going to keep getting better." 


MSU's loss was a 65-50 setback on Dec. 12 at then-No. 25 Cincinnati. The Bearcats are ranked No. 19 in The Associated Press Top 25 this week. It was MSU's only non-conference game against a ranked opponent. 


Ben Howland's third MSU team could be his best. Still, it remains to be seen if the Bulldogs have enough firepower to get back to the postseason for the first time since the 2012 National Invitation Tournament. 


"We like where we are," Howland said. "You have the loss to Cincinnati but have taken care of the rest of the games on the schedule. We have dealt with injuries, illnesses, and suspensions. Rarely have we had the full lineup. I don't think anybody has seen the finished product because somebody has been missing here or there. 


"The grind starts (tonight) and goes all the way to the SEC tournament. You can't let up now. You put your head down and go to work." 


MSU will try to do that after learning Sunday that 6-foot-10 sophomore center Schnider Herard has left the team and will transfer. 


Howland's first two squads won 14 and 16 games. Both teams finished below .500 in league play with conference marks of 7-11 and 6-12. MSU's last conference winning record was a 9-7 mark in the 2010-11 season. 


To return to the postseason, the Bulldogs most likely will need to finish .500 or better in their 18-game conference slate. Tonight's game is magnified because it is at home and it is against a ranked opponent. 


Arkansas moved into The AP poll Monday after beating Tennessee 95-93 in overtime Saturday at home to start its conference slate. 


"Clearly the challenge is the short turnaround time," Howland said. "Arkansas is outstanding. To prepare for their frantic pace in two days is challenge. I think the guys are looking forward to turning the page and starting conference play. You have to be ready from the start." 


Howland normally gives the team Sundays off. However, the MSU started to install the game plan for Arkansas on Sunday hours after a 109-81 victory against North Florida on Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum. 


The Bulldogs have won their last three games at home by an average of 25 points. Earlier in the season, MSU needed game-winning shots to beat Jacksonville State (RPI of 228) and Dayton (88). 


Aric Holman had 23 points against North Florida. Holman (13.1 points per game) and Quinndary Weatherspoon (14.2) lead the Bulldogs in scoring. 


"We are ready to step up the competition level," said Holman, a 6-10 junior forward. "We are not where we want to be, but we plan on getting better. Everybody feels good (after a North Florida victory where MSU shot 62 percent from the field). The confidence level is high after a game like that. We need that to carry over." 


NOTE: DawgTalk, the radio program featuring MSU coaches, will have a new format this year. 


Featuring first-year host Neil Price, the show will make its debut at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Veranda with a special two-hour program. 


Howland will be live from 7-8 p.m. MSU women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer will highlight the final hour. 


Throughout the year, both coaches will alternate the remaining 10 shows, which can be heard on local affiliates and by free live audio streaming on HailStatePLUS. 


Fans also are encouraged to come to the show each week and to ask questions on twitter at @HailStateMBK, @HailStateWBK and @HailStateVoice. 


Howland is scheduled to appear Jan. 17, Jan. 29, Feb. 7, Feb. 21, and Feb. 28. Schaefer is slated to appear Jan. 9, Jan. 24, Jan. 30, Feb. 13, and Feb. 26. 


The program can be heard locally on WFCA-FM 107.9, WWZQ-AM 1240, WAMY-AM 1580, and WKBB-FM 100.9. 


Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott


Scott is sports copy editor and reporter


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