When this season began, Mississippi was hopeful of moving into the Top 25 while Mississippi State already had a spot.
The roles are reversed heading into Saturday’s SEC opener with the 14th-ranked Rebels trying to at least maintain their position with a win over the visiting Bulldogs.
Mississippi State was No. 18 in the preseason AP Top 25 with 393 votes while Mississippi garnered only 15. Early season struggles pushed the Bulldogs out of the poll, while the Rebels have ascended to their highest ranking since finishing the 2000-01 season at No. 14.
Ole Miss (12-2) has beaten all 12 unranked teams it’s faced this season and has rebounded from a 76-66 loss at then-No. 6 West Virginia with consecutive home wins.
The Rebels improved to 8-0 in Oxford this season with Tuesday night’s 84-56 drubbing of Central Florida. Terrico White topped 20 points for the second straight game with a team-best 21, and Chris Warren had 14 to surpass 1,000 points in his 60th career game.
“I really didn’t know I was close until just before the game today,” Warren said. “My main focus was to get us off to a good start, and we did that.”
Warren and fellow starting guard Eniel Polynice missed most of last season with knee injuries, and key reserve Trevor Gaskins didn’t play at all because of one. After Ole Miss limped to a second straight 7-9 finish in the SEC, leading scorer David Huertas left to play professionally in Puerto Rico and starting forward Malcolm White transferred to LSU.
Their departures have been overcome by a healthier roster, including Warren averaging 16.9 points and Polynice adding 10.6 per game along with a team-high 4.6 assists. Terrico White, the conference’s freshman of the year in 2008-09, tops the Rebels with 17.3 points per game.
White has averaged 19.5 points in two matchups with Mississippi State (12-3), including a 67-63 road win Jan. 31. That was Ole Miss’ third victory in four meetings, but the Bulldogs won the most recent one and snapped a three-game skid in Oxford with an 82-80 victory March 7.
Ravern Johnson scored 20 points in that win and leads Mississippi State this season with 14.5 per game.
The Bulldogs, who received 26 votes in the latest AP poll, entered this season with optimism, especially with newcomer Renardo Sidney in the fold. The Bulldogs, who won last season’s SEC tournament title, were picked to win the conference’s West division.
Sidney remains ineligible as the NCAA continues to investigate his family’s finances after they moved from Mississippi to California for his senior year of high school.
The Bulldogs got off to a 3-2 start—both losses came to unranked foes from mid-major conferences. They rebounded with a nine-game win streak before Monday night’s 55-52 defeat at Western Kentucky.
Jarvis Varnado had 17 points and 12 rebounds, but only five other players scored during a 36.2-percent shooting performance.
Varnado, a two-time SEC defensive player of the year, led the nation in blocks the last two seasons and is atop that list again with 74. He holds the SEC career record with 468 blocked shots.
The 6-foot-9 forward, who returned for his senior season and gave up his scholarship to help the Bulldogs sign Sidney, is averaging a career-best 14.3 points and 10.9 rebounds. However, he’s had 6.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in six meetings with Ole Miss.