It’s been a while since the Mississippi State men’s basketball team last took the court.
The Bulldogs last played Dec. 29, beating Arkansas 81-68 to get off to a 1-0 start in Southeastern Conference play.
They were scheduled to take on Missouri on the road Wednesday, but the contest was postponed Monday because of COVID-19 issues within the Tigers’ program.
So it will have been nearly 10 days since Mississippi State (10-3, 1-0 SEC) last played by the time the Bulldogs face Ole Miss (8-5, 0-1 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Oxford.
Here are three things to watch as MSU meets its in-state rival for the first time this season.
Who will play for Ole Miss?
Perhaps the biggest factor in Saturday night’s game is simply who will be available for the Rebels.
Ole Miss had just nine scholarship players and 10 players overall at its disposal in Wednesday’s loss to Tennessee. Players and coaches have been in and out of COVID-19 protocols lately for the Rebels, making it hard to discern who will be available on any given night.
But head coach Kermit Davis insisted before the contest his team would face the Volunteers even with seven scholarship players. (Any fewer, and a team can refuse to play, triggering a no contest per the SEC’s new COVID policy.)
Forward Robert Allen, who averages 6.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, was among the players missing as Ole Miss battled Tennessee to overtime in Knoxville before falling 66-60. Allen is out for the season because of a knee injury.
Leading scorer Jarkel Joiner also did not play because of a back injury. If Joiner, who averages 14.8 points per contest, can’t go Saturday, Mississippi State will be at a considerable advantage.
Will Tolu Smith play well again?
It’s been a season of stops and starts for Mississippi State forward Tolu Smith.
The redshirt junior big man did not play until Nov. 25 as he recovered from a stress fracture in his left foot. Two games into his season, he broke his pinky toe in his right foot and played through the injury until Dec. 5.
Smith returned to action against Arkansas, leading the Bulldogs to victory with a team-high 18 points. But he’s had to sit out another week and a half since that game, with the inconsistent schedule not helping him get back in a rhythm.
A big game from Smith would help Mississippi State significantly against Ole Miss. But even if he’s not at his best, the Bulldogs have several other weapons in guards Iverson Molinar and forwards Garrison Brooks and D.J. Jeffries.
Can the Rebels score points?
Ole Miss boasts one of the better defenses in the country, ranking No. 42 nationally per KenPom.com.
Its offense is a different story.
The Rebels check in with the No. 200 offense in college basketball, right below such teams as Nicholls State, The Citadel and Sacred Heart. They shoot under 43 percent and average fewer than 70 points per contest.
Ole Miss was held to 50 or fewer points twice, resulting in losses to Boise State and Western Kentucky. The Rebels did beat Memphis by four points, their only win against a team ranked higher than their No. 100 slot.
But they haven’t broken 80 points since scoring 93 against Charleston Southern, one of the 10 worst teams in Division I. By contrast, Mississippi State has scored 80 or more points four times, including against Arkansas.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.