Rebels go for resume enhancer at West Virginia
For the second time this season, Ole Miss is going to get a shot at a top-10 team, a potential top-line-of-the-resume win that could pop off the page when the NCAA tournament selection committee gathers in mid-March.
The Rebels already have a handful of high-profile wins on a vita that looks more impressive daily. Ole Miss (10-1) has neutral-court wins over Indiana, Kansas State (Ratings Percentage Index: 1) and Texas-El Paso, a road victory at Arkansas State and a home defeat of Southern Miss (RPI: 4). The voters have noticed, promoting the Rebels to No. 15 in the latest Associated Press Top 25.
Still, for the Rebels to start breathing the rarified air reserved for elite teams, it needs an eye-popping win, one that eluded them late last month when Ole Miss lost to No. 5 Villanova _the Wildcats are No. 12 in Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com ratings _ in the finals of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
A second chance comes tonight in Morgantown, W.Va., when the Rebels meet No. 6 West Virginia (8-0) at 6: 30 p.m. CST. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.
"I hope we've gotten better (since the Villanova loss)," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I hope we get better every game just from playing together. (Saturday against Centenary) I thought we had a great rhythm. I thought our chemistry was outstanding. We've still got some issues, obviously, as most teams do in December. We've had close games. We've had (large-margin wins). We've been in hostile environments, but not one the magnitude we're going to face (tonight), and that's the next challenge for this team."
"I'm excited," Ole Miss guard Zach Graham said. "These are games we come here for -- big games. It's on TV. It's national. Everybody's going to be able to see it. It's against tough competition. We have to have our minds ready and come with the right approach."
Ole Miss (RPI: 23) ranks first in the Southeastern Conference and sixth in the country with an average of 85.4 points per game, scoring 80 or more points in eight of its first 11 games, 90 or more points in four contests and a season-high 108 in a home blowout of Centenary this past Saturday.
Those numbers will be tested in Morgantown. The Mountaineers are coming off an 80-78 win at Cleveland State in which Da'Sean Butler hit a game-winning layup with 1.2 seconds left. Bob Huggins' team averages 76.4 points per game and allows just 58 points per game to opponents. The team also out-rebounds foes by more than seven boards per game and has a plus-5.8 turnover margin. Butler leads the Mountaineers with 16.9 points per game. Three other players _ Kevin Jones, Devin Ebanks and Darryl Bryant _ are averaging double-figures also.
West Virginia won in Oxford last December, claiming an 80-78 win when Chris Warren missed a 25-foot jumper at the buzzer. It was a game the Rebels remember well, but not necessarily because of the outcome.
Ole Miss was struck by how much West Virginia reminded the Rebels of themselves. It's no accident. Kennedy worked for Huggins for four seasons at Cincinnati earlier this decade, winning 24.5 games per season and making four NCAA tournament appearances.
"They're definitely physical," Graham said. "They have the same mentality as we do -- staying in line, denying the ball and playing in-your-face defense. You have to be intense and come out with energy. Basically pressuring the ball and being up in line on defense is what both of our coaches emphasize. You just have to be physical back. You have to set screens, cut and get open."
In Huggins' style of defense, the middle of the floor is an area where the ball is not allowed. Pushing the ball to the sideline is the goal of the defense. A major concept in Huggins' defense is not allowing straight-line passes. To execute this, players are taught to be on the line of the ball to make the pass go over the top instead of directly to the receiver. The result has an affect on the offense by making offensive players move away from the basket to catch the ball.
"Kennedy is up line, in line, and he tells us Bob Huggins enforces it," Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway said. "That's who he got it from. They're going to be up line, in line, denying passes, rebounding, blocking out. It'll be interesting to see how that'll play out. We do the same. We just battle."
"We've got to be us," Kennedy said. "We're going to be aggressive. We're going to do the things we've shown we're capable of doing. Defensively you worry about different match-ups, but it's a great opportunity. I want to make sure our guys understand it's a fantastic opportunity to go on the road and play a team of this caliber and see what we're made of."