January 17, 2017 10:06:11 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State men's basketball coach Ben Howland doesn't view his team's next game as an opportunity to "prove something."
Instead, he views it as a another game, even if it is a matchup against the best team in the Southeastern Conference and one of the best in the nation.
"It is a great opportunity to play against great players," Howland said Monday about the game against No. 5 Kentucky at 6 tonight (ESPN) at Humphrey Coliseum. "We are going to have a phenomenal environment tomorrow. I think our fans are fired up. We are going to play real hard. The bottom line is that we are going to play our very hardest and leave it all out on the floor."
Howland said not much has changed about his team's preparation coming off a 67-59 victory against Texas A&M on Saturday in Starkville. Although Howland is trying to create the same atmosphere as he would for any game, he knows his players might view this game differently.
"These guys are well aware of how good Kentucky is," Howland said. "They follow college basketball. They know about the kids on the team and how talented they are. I think our guys will be very excited about the opportunity."
Kentucky (15-2, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) has won five in a row -- all in the SEC -- since losing to Louisville 73-70 on Dec. 21, 2016, at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
MSU (12-4, 3-1) enters the game riding a three-game winning streak. It expects a raucous crowd at Humphrey Coliseum coming off a season-high crowd of 8,588 against Texas A&M.
Three of Kentucky's top four scorers are freshmen. Malik Monk, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday, leads the SEC in scoring at 21.8 points per game. Freshmen De'Aaron Fox and Edrice Adebayo are averaging 16.5 and 13.2 ppg., respectively. Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, who Howland described as the heart of the Kentucky team, is averaging 15.4 ppg.
MSU senior guard I.J. Ready is 0-3 against Kentucky in the seasons. The Bulldogs have lost nine-straight games in the series dating back to a 66-57 win in 2009 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.
Ready remembers playing Kentucky for the first time in 2014 and realizing he was playing against several future NBA players.
"I think when you're playing against Kentucky at any given time, all the guys on the floor are NBA prospects," Ready said. "It's just a different talent level and a different chemistry of how they play. You have to pretty much play a perfect game."
Ready (10.1 ppg.) is MSU's only senior. Sophomore guard/forward Quinndary Weatherspoon (17.9 ppg) leads the team in scoring. Sophomore forward Aric Holman and freshman point guard Lamar Peters are averaging 10.4 ppg., while freshman guard Mario Kegler is averaging 10.1 ppg.
With six scholarship freshmen, Ready said the young players have been looking forward to playing Kentucky.
"I've just tried to calm them down and let them know it's another game," Ready said. "We have to stay disciplined and not be too excited because trying to play for the crowd and being too excited can cause a bad loss."
After losing 68-58 to Alabama on Jan. 3 at the Hump, MSU has won three in a row, including road wins against LSU (95-78 on Jan. 7) and Arkansas (84-78 on Jan. 10).
"The atmosphere is probably going to be the best atmosphere we get all year, including the Ole Miss game," Ready said. "It's a big opportunity RPI-wise to try and get in the tournament and for us to try and get some respect in the SEC."
MSU is tied for fourth in the SEC with Alabama. Florida (5-0 SEC) and South Carolina (4-0) are with Kentucky at the top of the league standings.
n In related news, the league office announced Weatherspoon is the SEC Player of the Week.
The Canton native averaged 19 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in wins at Arkansas and against Texas A&M. He scored 25 against the Razorbacks on 8-of-11 shooting, including 6 of 7 from 3-point range.
After not scoring in the first half, Weatherspoon scored 13 points in the second half against the Aggies.
"His importance to our team cannot be understated, especially with how young we are and how youthful we are," Howland said. "Him not only being such a good, fine player at both ends of floor, but also his leadership every day. It's been a huge reason why we're having success."
n Howland said freshman center Schnider Herard was scheduled to have CAT scan Monday to see if he had a broken nose.
Peters hit Herard in the nose Saturday. Herard wore a mask Sunday at practice. Howland expects Herard will wear one against Kentucky.
Howland said freshman center E.J. Datcher tweaked his knee against the Aggies, but he believes the Harpersville, Alabama, native has recovered.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.