STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State was the worst team in the Southeastern Conference last season. Now the program is simply mediocre.
It's far from a miraculous turnaround, but the Bulldogs (12-15, 5-9 SEC) have slowly shown signs of improvement during their third season under coach Rick Ray.
The past week was a synopsis of how much Mississippi State has progressed - and also how far the program has to go to beat the league's elite. The Bulldogs narrowly lost home games to Mississippi and Arkansas, leading for most of both games before faltering in the final minutes.
Now Mississippi State gets its chance Wednesday to knock off No. 1 Kentucky (27-0, 14-0 SEC), which has won its past three games over Tennessee, South Carolina and Auburn by an average of nearly 30 points.
''Kentucky is obviously a daunting task,'' Ray said. ''I look at some of their defensive statistics and they are really elite in that regard. In order for us to have any kind of success against a team like Kentucky or anybody in the SEC, we've got to secure the basketball.''
It's been a rough three seasons for Mississippi State, which has a 36-56 overall record under Ray, including a 12-38 mark in regular-season SEC games. It was widely understood there might be tough times when Ray took over because of a depleted roster - but the turnaround has been slow for a program accustomed to winning.
The Bulldogs made six NCAA tournaments during an eight-year stretch from 2002 to 2009. That success often seems ages ago when the Bulldogs play in front of an often half-empty Humphrey Coliseum these days.
The current Mississippi State team does some things very well, especially on the defensive end. The Bulldogs give up about 62 points per game, which ranks fifth in the league.
The team's offense still isn't great, but has improved substantially. Junior Craig Sword, who struggled early in the season following back surgery, has averaged a team-high 13.4 points per game in SEC play while shooting nearly 46 percent from the field.
Mississippi State's last remaining major problem is turnovers. The Bulldogs had 23 of them against Arkansas and rank last in the league with more than 15 per game.
''We've got to learn how to close these games out, stop turning the ball over and get rebounds when it counts,'' Sword said.
Mississippi State hopes starting point guard I.J. Ready can return to the lineup after missing the Arkansas game because of a sprained ankle. Ray says the team's attitude continues to be good.
''Either you have guys that care about winning or you have guys that don't,'' Ray said. ''I think for the most part we have guys that are locked in and want to win.''
Kentucky has been tested a few times during SEC play, but not lately. The Wildcats have never looked more unstoppable than Saturday, when they crushed Auburn 110-75.
But Kentucky's players say they aren't taking Mississippi State for granted. The Bulldogs' last victory against a No. 1-ranked opponent was in 1996 against the Wildcats.
''I'm not sure how their record reflects how good they are, because they're pretty good,'' Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison said. ''They have guards who can drive the ball, stuff like that, so it's going to be a tough game.''
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves contributed to this story.
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