Ole Miss and Mississippi State now have played one another in 265 basketball games over 108 seasons, dating back to 1914 — roughly 23 years after Dr. James Naismith famously nailed peach baskets to a low railing in a Springfield, Mass., YMCA.
Thus, Mississippi State versus Ole Miss is the oldest basketball rivalry in the Southeastern Conference.
What strikes this observer most about the series is this: You never know what will happen when these arch-rivals meet. You may think you know, but you don’t.
For instance, the 1995-96 Mississippi State team, the only Mississippi men’s team to reach the Final Four, played a mid-February game in Oxford against a young Ole Miss team with a losing record. Heavily favored State was a red-hot team about to get a whole lot hotter. The Dogs had won five straight and just three weeks later would stun No. 1 Kentucky to win the SEC Championship.
Ole Miss, coached by Rob Evans, featured a guard tandem of two freshmen, Keith Carter, now the school’s athletic director, and Michael White, now the head coach at Florida. Few gave Ole Miss much of a chance. So of course the young Rebels won 71-64.
Stuff like that just happens in this series. It just does.
Last season, for instance, the two teams played first at Starkville with the Bulldogs big favorites. Naturally, the Rebels beat the socks off the ‘Dogs, 64-46. A month later, they played at Oxford, where Ole Miss was supposed to win. The Rebels did not. State prevailed 66-56. You just never know.
It was with all that in mind that I tuned into Saturday night’s 265th basketball Egg Bowl, a game played in Oxford. State came in with a 10-3 record, 1-0 in the conference. Ole Miss was 8-5 and had lost its only previous SEC game. State was much higher in all the power ratings. Ole Miss was coming off a game in which the Rebels turned the ball over a whopping 27 times to snatch defeat from what should have been a victory. Tennessee won 66-60 in overtime. For all that and more reasons, State was favored at Oxford by two points.
Well, you know what happened. Ole Miss turned the ball over just 12 times, shot nearly 50% from beyond the three-point arc, and won 82-72 after leading by as many as 20. In retrospect, we should have expected it.
Every State-Ole Miss game is remembered for something. The most recent will be remembered as the night Ole Miss sophomore Matthew Murrell went unconscious. What he did was make everything he threw at the basket from anywhere. Well, not quite. He missed once in 11 field goal attempts. That’s a shooting percentage of 90.9%. He was 100% from three-point land, making all five. He was 100% on free throws making all six. He scored 31 points, 22 above his season average. In all, he shot the ball 17 times, made 16. That would be a helluva feat in warm-ups, much less with big, tall, fast people guarding you.
In basketball, they call it “being in the zone.” For State, it had to feel like the Twilight Zone. Several of those shots were heavily guarded. Didn’t seem to matter to Murrell.
This was the kind of performance Kermit Davis Jr. probably expected from Murrell when he became the most highly rated basketball recruit in Ole Miss history — or at least the most highly rated since Cob Jarvis signed a hot-shot kid out of Memphis named Johnny Neumann.
Neumann famously averaged 40 points per game in his one Ole Miss varsity season (1970-71). By comparison, Murrell averaged just 4.2 points per game as a freshman and made just 33% of his shots.
In other words, Murrell wasn’t living up to high expectations — at least he wasn’t until Saturday night. He had scored 17 in the loss at Tennessee and Davis, his coach, said he had seen signs in practice that Murrell was about to break loose. “He’s been practicing like that lately, making every shot like that,” Davis said.
Murrell had lots of help. Just as crucial to the Ole Miss victory was the play of seven-foot center Nysier Brooks, the transfer from Miami who surely played his best game as a Rebel. He controlled the lane is what he did, scoring 15 points, pulling down 16 rebounds, blocking five shots and causing the Bulldogs to adjust on several others. Of those 16 rebounds, eight were on the offensive end.
Freshman point guard Daeshun Ruffin was huge as well, scoring 17 and passing out eight assists. Ruffin is making the transition from being a shooter and scorer at Callaway High to being a point guard and distributor in the SEC. Saturday night was surely the best sign to date he is successfully making that transition.
Mississippi State? Hard to say. The Bulldogs were missing 6-11 Tolu Smith and his 14 points and eight rebounds a game. Would Smith have made a difference inside against the dominance of Nysier Brooks? You would certainly think so.
We shouldn’t have to wait that long to find out. Ole Miss travels to Starkville for a Saturday afternoon game on Jan. 22.
There’s plenty of basketball for both between now and then, beginning with the Rebels’ quick turn-around game at Texas A&M on Tuesday night. The Rebels will then play host to Auburn and Missouri before making the trip to State.
State plays host to Georgia on Wednesday and then Alabama Saturday, before going on the road to Florida a week from Wednesday.
And then the ‘Dogs will return home to face Ole Miss in the 266th meeting between the two teams. What to expect?
The unexpected, of course.