Take Five – Get the big takeaways on sports in Mississippi with our weekly ‘Take Five’ series. Five minutes, five takes, all the insight and information you need to stay plugged in.
By – Jon Wiener
1. State As Advertised, Southern Darn Good Too:
The in-state Top 25 series in Starkville lived up to the billing and then some. No.9 Mississippi State and No.21 Southern Miss tangled at shiny new Dudy Noble Field, where the Bulldogs took two of three from the Golden Eagles and showed why they are a legitimate CWS contender. The Diamond Dogs returned the bulk of the lineup that carried them to Omaha a year ago, but it’s the starting pitching that could elevate this group: Friday night starter Ethan Small and ballyhooed freshman J.T. Ginn combined for 14 innings of shutout baseball and 21 strikeouts over two days. The Bulldogs pieced it together on Sunday with six pitchers and clutch hitting for a 4-3 win to take the series. If the Dawgs can get dominant starting pitching from Small & Ginn to complement their seasoned lineup, they’ll be among the nation’s best. Don’t count out the Golden Eagles, either: they lost two one-run games in the toughest series they’ll play this season — on the road against a Top 10 SEC team. As usual, fans of just about every college baseball club in Mississippi have hope this season.
2. Bulldogs, Rebels Avoid Dreaded “Bad Loss”:
Sometimes you get big wins, other times you avoid bad losses. Both are musts down the stretch to get into the NCAA Tournament. State and Ole Miss did the latter this weekend, albeit in different forms. The Rebels prevailed 72-71 in The Pavilion over a Georgia team that was 1-12 in the SEC. Coming off a blowout loss at South Carolina and with home games against No.7 Tennessee & No.4 Kentucky looming, Ole Miss was staring a crippling late-season skid in the face in the final minutes against Georgia. But behind 17 clutch points from star guard Breein Tyree, it was mission accomplished for Ole Miss, however perilously. Meanwhile, Mississippi State rallied at home from a 16 point deficit against South Carolina for a fourth straight SEC win. Both teams are squarely in the NCAA field at this point, with the Bulldogs hovering around the 6-7 seed range and the Rebels projected as an 8-9 seed. Tyree and Bulldogs senior Q. Weatherspoon continue to carry their respective mantles: the guards rank 2nd & 3rd in the SEC in scoring, and are the main reasons we’ll have March basketball in Mississippi this year.
3. Tougaloo, Billups Shine Out of the Spotlight:
Legendary Lanier coach Thomas Billups won 629 games and eight state championships during his illustrious stint at 833 Maple St. But for reasons we will feature later this week in our profile of Billups, he left Lanier amidst controversy in 2013 and has never gotten the big-time college job opportunity, unlike less-accomplished JPS contemporaries Wayne Brent and Luther Riley. Billups doesn’t “play the game,” so to speak, and operates without filter or fluff. But he sure can coach. NAIA member Tougaloo College (enrollment: 900) welcomed him with open arms in 2014. Now in his fourth year, Billups’s Bulldogs are nearly unbeatable. They smacked No.25 Dillard 100-59 on Saturday and Rust College 107-73 this Monday to finish the regular season at 25-4, 12-2. Once again Billups has a team playing at its highest level, heading to the postseason. The school may be surprising…the success, anything but. (Make sure you check out Torsheta Bowens’ feature profile on Billups later this week).
4. NFL Combine Reflects Freeze – Mullen Run:
17 guys. That’s the absurd total number of prospects from Ole Miss and Mississippi State participating in the NFL Combine that begins this week in Indianapolis. And that’s without arguably the best player of the whole bunch, Bulldogs DL Jeffrey Simmons (not invited, per NFL policy, due to a past simple assault charge). What does it say for football in the Magnolia state? You have to have good players to win games, and Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze had plenty of both during their time in Mississippi. The Rebels core contingent of Greg Little, A.J. Brown & D.K. Metcalf is the same core of Freeze’s heralded 5th ranked recruiting class of 2016. The Bulldog headliners Montez Sweat and Jonathan Abram came to Starkville via the Mississippi JUCO system, and teamed with homegrown recruit Jeff Simmons to field the No.1 total defense in college football last year. The early NFL success of recent State products like Chris Jones, Fletcher Cox, Dak Prescott & Darius Slay speaks to the ability of Mullen and his staff to develop players. It was a bountiful run in Mississippi during those days. We’ll see the biggest example of why on the turf in Indianapolis.
5. Ole Miss Football: Hope Springs Eternal?
Football spring practice begins in Oxford this week, and the program will fully turn the page from the successful but often salacious Freeze era. Gone are the stars of his 2016 class. His final coordinators Phil Longo and Wesley McGriff have been replaced. And (did you know?) the new coach really loves Ole Miss. So it will be interesting to see and feel how different things are in Oxford this spring. Ole Miss fans don’t exactly worship the ground Matt Luke walks on, despite his affinity for the school. And there are a good many fans still fatigued and frustrated by the NCAA investigation and 11 wins in two years. But Luke did what he could to offer excitement on the coaching market by bringing in high-profile coordinators Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre, both of whom bring documented success in big-time college football. There is less talent on the field for Ole Miss this spring than any in recent memory; however, the staff and foundation is also in better shape than it’s been in some time. That should count for something. The question is, how much?