Provo • There are probably better ways to get ready for the West Coast Conference race and restore confidence to a basketball team plagued by inconsistency and defensive letdowns than to travel more than halfway across the country and play one of the best teams in the nation on its home floor.

But that’s what the 8-6 BYU Cougars are doing in their final non-conference game of the year.

Having lost two straight games and five of its last eight, BYU will test No. 19 Mississippi State (11-1) at 10 a.m. Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss. The third matchup ever between the Cougars and Bulldogs and first since 1995 will be televised by ESPNU.

“Our guys understand the challenge we have here is pretty difficult,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “For us to go in there and get this turned around, we are going to have to have a heckuva effort, from the top of the roster all the way to the bottom of the roster.”

Rose said the unlikely pairing, which will be a one-and-done game with no return visit to Provo for the Bulldogs, came about for three reasons:

• First, BYU wanted to get a game within driving distance of starting point guard Jahshire Hardnett’s hometown of Gulfport, Miss. The town of 71,000 at the south end of the state is a four-hour drive from Starkville.

“Jahshire is an independent guy,” Rose said when asked how the junior who transferred from Chipola (Fla.) College is acclimating to Provo. “He’s got a real determined personality. He’s got great support from his family, especially his mother. But it is not easy, being that far away from home and kind of trying to find your way.”

Hardnett is averaging 11.4 points and 1.9 assists per game in his second season in Provo.

“He is having a good year, but he has high expectations for himself," Rose said. “He really puts a lot of pressure on himself to get our team to be successful and for him to play well individually. I think he has handled it well, but I don’t think it is something you ever really conquer. It is just something that is a grind and you deal with issues every game, every day, and hopefully he can become consistent enough to where he is pleased with how he plays and is pleased with his performance and pleased with the results of our team.”

• Second, BYU was looking for a top-25 opponent that would boost the Cougars’ NCAA tournament credentials, and a little research showed that MSU would be formidable after the Bulldogs made it to the NIT semifinals last spring. They’ve been just that, having won eight straight, including victories over Saint Mary’s (61-57), Dayton (65-58), Clemson (82-71) and Cincinnati (70-59).

“It is a team that is really explosive offensively, and then on other nights they have some issues,” Rose said. “The style of their game is more to control tempo than it is to race the ball up and down the floor and try to outscore you. They’ve got a couple really good guards [Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters] who will play at the next level.”

• Third, Rose and fourth-year MSU coach Ben Howland, 61, the former Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA head coach who played for Weber State have been friends for decades.

“Ben and I have been through scheduling issues for years,” Rose said. “Ben has some real Utah ties. I think that he knows a lot about BYU and kinda agreed to the game. It didn’t just happen with one phone call. This took quite a few conversations to get to an agreement.”

Howland’s Bruins ended BYU’s perfect season and 10-game winning streak 86-79 on Dec. 19, 2010 in Jimmer Fredette’s final season. Now BYU is hoping for some late-December magic.

At Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss.

Tipoff • Saturday, 10 a.m. MST
Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 8-6, Miss State 11-1
Series history • Tied, 1-1
Last meeting • Mississippi State 79, BYU 74 (Dec. 2, 1995)
About the Bulldogs • Coach Ben Howland is 66-46 in his fourth season in Starkville. ... Their only loss was a 72-67 setback to Arizona State at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. … They have won eight straight games, but struggled with Wright State on Dec. 22 before pulling out a 67-63 win in Jackson, Miss. … They are averaging 78.3 points per game and allowing just 65.5 points. … Quinndary Weatherspoon leads them in scoring with a 16.4 average and Aric Holman leads them in rebounding with an 8.7 average.
About the Cougars • This is their final non-conference game before West Coast Conference play begins Thursday at Pacific. … Junior G TJ Haws is averaging 21.0 points and 5.4 assists over the last five games, while shooting 59.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. … Senior F Luke Worthington scored a season-high 11 points and grabbed five rebounds in last Saturday’s 90-81 loss at San Diego State. … Junior F Yoeli Childs is second in the WCC in scoring with a 22.1 average and first in rebounding with a 10.6 average.