FAYETTEVILLE — Mississippi State coach Rick Ray is well aware of the challenge his team faces in Bud Walton Arena tonight.
The reality: It’s the same challenge the Bulldogs face every night.
Undermanned Mississippi State has seven healthy scholarship players available as Ray navigates his first Southeastern Conference season. Injuries hit his team in the offseason and have continued during the regular season, leaving Mississippi State with a distinct disadvantage every time it steps on the court.
“Everybody I talked to says it’s a unique situation,” Ray said about the Bulldogs’ roster problems. “There is nobody that can draw on any experience.”
Ray will bring his thin roster to Fayetteville, where Mississippi State (7-9, 2-2 in SEC) will face an Arkansas (11-6, 2-2 in SEC) team eager to bounce back from last Saturday’s loss at Ole Miss. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson’s team prides itself on depth and a roster capable of wearing down opponents with pressure, which should come in handy tonight against the Bulldogs.
State leans on a thin rotation in which seven players log more than 22 minutes a night. Regular foul trouble for the frontcourt hasn’t helped the situation. Neither has a backcourt that has struggled to deal with pressure most of the season.
So it’s no surprise Arkansas eyes an opportunity to overwhelm the Bulldogs.
“Obviously, we want to push the tempo and get into their bench,” said Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar, who was named a team captain along with Marshawn Powell this week. “We want to make it tough for however many guys that play significant minutes to play those significant minutes. But that’s what we try to do on any team.”
Arkansas enters tonight’s game leading the SEC in forced turnovers (17.6) and is third in steals (9.3) a game. It will face a Bulldogs’ lineup that averages an SEC-high 17.2 turnovers a game and recently had 21 in a 75-43 loss to Alabama.
Ray was asked how Mississippi State can prepare for Arkansas’ pressure defense and said it’s impossible with the low roster numbers. Ray said his team must be patient tonight, though, concentrating on ball security above everything else.
“We have to make sure we break the press and not turn the ball over,” Ray said. “That’s got to be our biggest concern, not turning the ball over and then get in our half-court offense and just play from there. But if we are worrying about trying to break the press and go score, then we are going to have problems because that’s what we tried to do against Alabama and that was a big struggle for us.”
There’s no doubt it’s an advantage for Arkansas. But Anderson stressed that nothing is automatic for his team, which is coming off a 76-64 loss at Ole Miss last Saturday.
The Razorbacks faced a team with limited numbers to open conference play earlier this month. But it didn’t matter in an embarrassing 69-51 loss at Texas A&M.
So Anderson, instead, said Arkansas must concentrate on consistency in several areas tonight. One of the most notable is cleaning up sloppy play at Ole Miss, where the Razorbacks turned the ball over 19 times en route to another road loss.
“The thing I’m looking for our team is to see if we can bounce back from a tough loss at Ole Miss and play some good basketball and clean up another area,” Anderson said. “It’s amazing. We clean up one area in terms of defending and rebounding, then we didn’t take care of the ball. We didn’t value the basketball. That’s what really cost us in the Ole Miss game. So we want to make sure we clean up that and get better.”
Arkansas and Mississippi State have played twice each season since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992. But tonight’s game will be the only one this season under the SEC’s new 18-game schedule. The Bulldogs have dominated the series lately, too, winning seven of the previous nine games against the Razorbacks.
It included last season’s 79-59 loss at Mississippi State in the regular season finale.
At that point, Arkansas was feeling plenty of fatigue from a season in which it was undermanned because of injuries and departures. Anderson said Mississippi State’s situation is a little different, but understands what Ray is experiencing.
“It’s kind of a tough situation, tough spot, and you’ve just got to manage it the best you can,” Anderson said. “Because at this point in time, we still have 14 conference games, plus the tournament. So you try to keep those guys as fresh as you can.”
But the Razorbacks won’t be shy about trying to take advantage of Mississippi State and its thin bench when the teams play tonight.
“Not to say it’s going to be an easy game because it’s definitely not going to be, but we are just going to try and play hard and the way we play up and down hopefully we will be able to wear them down a little bit,” forward Hunter Mickelson said.
Mississippi State (7-9) at Arkansas (11-6)
• When: 8 p.m.
• Where: Bud Walton Arena
• TV/Radio: Comcast Sports Southeast/KABZ-FM 103.7
• Series: Arkansas leads 28-25; last meeting Mississippi State 79, Arkansas 59 on March 3