- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mississippi is out to prove it is among the elite basketball teams in the Southeastern Conference. Mississippi State wants to show its recent surge is no fluke.

A victory on Wednesday in Oxford would help either team advance its cause.

The Rebels and the Bulldogs are meeting for the 250th time, which makes it the most-played rivalry in the SEC. Ole Miss (12-7, 3-3 SEC) is coming off a last-minute win over Florida on Saturday while Mississippi State (9-10, 2-4) lost to Georgia.

Ole Miss is trying to make the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, but must be able to establish some consistency for that to happen. The Rebels have a 5-4 record over the past nine games, alternating wins and losses for more than a month.

“You have to be able to stack wins at this time of the year,” coach Andy Kennedy said.

This stretch of schedule looks like a good time to do it: Ole Miss plays Mississippi State, Missouri, Texas A&M; and Auburn over the next two weeks. The four programs have a combined 9-15 mark in the league.

The Rebels hope to build some momentum off their galvanizing 72-71 victory over the Gators. They won despite trailing much of the game and getting only six points from Stefan Moody, who is averaging nearly 15 per game.

Unsung players like Dwight Coleby (10 points, six rebounds, four blocks) and Anthony Perez (six points, five rebounds) helped the Rebels push past Florida. Ole Miss is also helped by a terrific touch on free throws - the Rebels lead the country by making 80 percent from the line.

“I think we’re playing well, but we’ve just got to be consistent,” Coleby said. “One game we’ll look like the best team and then we’ll come back and be sluggish. If we can ever be consistent we’ll be good.”

Mississippi State is showing signs of improvement by winning two of its past three games. The Bulldogs picked up their first two conference wins by beating Vanderbilt and Auburn last week.

They nearly knocked off Georgia on Saturday, leading for much of the game before falling 72-66. Senior Roquez Johnson scored a career-high 25 points in the loss.

“Our guys can’t get discouraged by this,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “I think anybody can see that this team is taking strides and getting better.”

But the Bulldogs have taken steps forward in previous seasons before a total collapse. Mississippi State went 3-2 last season during its first five SEC games last season before losing 13 straight.

Two years ago, the Bulldogs won their first two SEC games before another 13-game losing streak sank the season.

Ray hopes a deeper team and more experience helps this team avoid a similar fate.

“Some of the little things that I’m sure the fan base may not see but the coaching staff sees, and some of the things we are trying to teach and coach, you see guys carrying it out,” Ray said.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP


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