Mississippi State has been better than fine this year. It takes a 13-0 record into tonight's game, which will be shown on ESPN. Kentucky is 10-1, but the Cats were expected to be among the conference's best this year. The Bulldogs were not expected to challenge for the conference title because coach Rick Stansbury returned just four experienced players. However, Bowers says the underdog role might have helped State just like his unknown status motivated him to develop into one of the SEC's best players.
"My sophomore year everybody picked us to finish third or fourth in the (SEC) West, and we won 27 games and the SEC Tournament," Bowers said. "When the pressure is not on you right from the outset, it is a lot easier to get the job done because you don't have that bull's-eye on your back when you play everybody."
Bowers likely will play a key role in determining who wins tonight's game. Just as Fitch did last season when Cliff Hawkins was ineligible, Bowers has moved from two guard to point guard for the Bulldogs this year. He's made a smooth transition, just like Fitch did, and is averaging 15.8 points, 4.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 34.5 percent from 3-point range and 76 percent at the foul line.
"As the team's only returning starter, I felt a little extra pressure coming into the year," Bowers said. "I knew I had to be a leader and I've used that as motivation."
Stansbury says when Bowers talks about this being "my team" it is a good thing.
"He's not selfish or anything like that. He just knows he has to be our leader," Stansbury said.
Bowers and Stansbury have developed a close relationship, much like the one Fitch has with UK coach Tubby Smith. Bowers says Stansbury's two young sons "brighten" his day when they come around the team and that he "loves" having them around to help him relax.
Stansbury played at Campbellsville College, and Bowers says he still has an accurate jump shot, one that was good enough to beat Bowers in a game of H-O-R-S-E when Bowers arrived at Mississippi State.
"He doesn't bring much up about his playing days. He thinks he can outjump me, and he probably still thinks he can outshoot me, but he couldn't," Bowers said. "But I really like being around him. He does some funny things, including some at practice that he doesn't even realize are funny. He might tell you to get down in a defensive and just the way he does it is a little strange and funny."
Bowers also thinks the lack of respect Kentucky seems to get from its own fans is a little "strange" based on UK's success the last two years.
"They just have the attitude of refusing to lose. Any time you've got that, it will carry you a long way," Bowers said. "If you have confidence, it is hard to break.
"Two years ago it looked like Kentucky might crumble. But I knew coach Smith would get those guys back together no matter what he had to do and he did last year. It hasn't surprised me that they are so good this year."
No one should be surprised that Bowers has been so good, either. Baylor transfer Lawrence Roberts is averaging a double-double and getting most of the individual attention at State, but Bowers is the player who might impact tonight's game more than anyone else on his team.
"I just go out to get rebounds and steals, make passes and play defense to help my team win," Bowers said. "As long as we win, I'm happy. And if we can beat Kentucky, I'll really be happy because I know how good they are."