The Kansas State Wildcats took a step in the right direction Wednesday with a blowout victory over Alabama State.
Bruce Weber would like nothing better than to see his team build on that success against a more formidable opponent than the 1-8 Hornets.
The Wildcats (6-3) will get that chance Saturday when they face Mississippi State (6-2) in a rare 10:30 a.m. tipoff as the first part of a Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
"This is a great opportunity for us in nonconference and to help us take a step forward," Weber said. "Ben (Howland, Mississippi State coach) doe a great job. I've known him forever.
"It's a great opportunity for us, great venue. We have a chance to see New York (on) Friday afternoon and Saturday after the game, but the main thing is go get a win."
The Wildcats have struggled against top-flight competition so far, losing to both Pittsburgh and Bradley in the Fort Myers Tip-Off and falling 73-65 at home last Saturday against Marquette.
Mississippi State also is looking for a marquee victory. The Bulldogs are coming off a 74-67 loss at home to Louisiana Tech on Dec. 5.
Weber has a relationship with Mississippi State sophomore Reggie Perry after coaching him in the FIBA U19 World Championships last summer. Perry was the most valuable player in the tournament, which was won by Team USA.
"He's a very good, physical presence," Weber said of the 6-foot-10 Perry, who tested the NBA draft waters following his freshman year before deciding to stay in school. "They have another big guy inside (6-11 junior Abdul Ado), so they've got two pretty strong guys. It means Levi (Stockard), Mak (Makol) Mawien and Antonio (Gordon) have a challenge with that."
Mawien, a senior and the Wildcats' only returning post player from a year ago, has been up and down, averaging 8.4 points and 5.0 rebounds a game. The 6-9 Gordon has stepped into the starting lineup in place of fellow freshman Montavious Murphy, who is battling an injury.
Mississippi State's leading scorer is senior guard Tyson Carter with 17.9 points and 4.1 assists per game. Perry adds 14.6 points and 9.5 rebounds and 6-7 guard Robert Woodard 11.6 points and 7.8 boards.
The Wildcats could offset some of Mississippi State's size with Gordon's versatility. He hit three 3-pointers against Alabama State.
"I just want to be able to play all-around," said Gordon, who had 13 points and eight rebounds against the Hornets. "I think it helps a lot for the team that I can space the floor (and shoot from the perimeter), but other than that I just want to play hard and win."
Weber said the key for the Wildcats remains getting consistent performances from veterans Xavier Sneed, Cartier Diarra and Mawien. Sneed scored 20 points against Alabama State and leads the team with 15.1 a game, while Diarra had 10 assists to bring his season average to 7.0.
"Those three are consistent, but the main thing with them is they've got to demand … why we've won," Weber said. "They've been part of it — they've been a major part of it — and why we've won's got to stay there.
"I thought our first couple of possessions defensively (against Alabama State) were big-time — just like a clinic, all the things we teach. Our defensive pride's got to be there every day and we've got to play hard."