Without blatantly saying Saturday evening’s game is the most important game of the season, Saturday’s game against Arkansas is the most important game of the season. It just is. A win for Ole Miss would signify that this is a team that can win a high-stakes ball game, string together three SEC wins and add another notch on its NCAA Tournament resume.
Arkansas (19-7, 8-5 SEC) is currently one full game ahead of Ole Miss in SEC standings, fresh off an upset victory at No. 21 South Carolina. In addition to leading the Rebels in SEC standings, it also holds that elusive fourth spot, which merits a double bye in the SEC Tournament in a few weeks. Further bolstering their tournament pedigree, the Razorbacks are currently 36th in RPI, almost 30 spots higher than the Rebels.
Understanding Arkansas’ success, it’s easy to fathom why this game is so huge for Ole Miss and its tournament hopes. Arkansas would be arguably the best win of the season for Kennedy’s team and a step in the right direction of some late-season momentum.
A victory in Fayetteville Saturday would mean three in a row for the Rebs, something this team hasn’t accomplished since it defeated Murray State, Bradley and Southern Alabama in early December. Three in a row has a certain ring to it. It signifies momentum; it signifies that things are trending upward for a ball club in dire need of consistency.
As for the Xs and Os of Saturday night’s game, Ole Miss and Arkansas match up surprisingly well. Both teams rank 225th or below nationally in points allowed, and, conversely, both are in the top fourth of points scored, as well. In short, defense will likely be optional in Saturday night’s contest. Arkansas is a team that, like the Rebels, can get hot from three if it wants to. In its upset victory at South Carolina, it shot 50 percent from three against a Gamecock team that ranks No. 1 nationally in defending the outside shot.
If Arkansas follows the trend of other SEC foes, it will use its backside guard to double Sebastian Saiz’s post touches. Doubling Saiz on every touch effectively makes him a non-threat; the past two opponents (Auburn and LSU) did so aggressively, forcing him into bad shots and only 40 percent shooting.
The Razorbacks almost exclusively play man defense, something Auburn and LSU did as well, which allowed gaping holes for guys like Terence Davis and Deandre Burnett to slash to the basket. If Ole Miss can stay focused and fresh on defense, its offense should propel it to victory.
Keys to the game:
1) Bud Walton Arena–dubbed the “Basketball Palace of Mid America”–is one of the toughest places to play in the SEC. In Arkansas’ blowout loss to Vanderbilt last week, the crowd was largely neutralized because the Commodores came out and jumped on them to start the game. If the Rebels don’t want to face the roar of 20,000, then come out of the gate swinging.
2) Ole Miss must get out and run in transition. Key No. 2 could essentially be a 1B because the transition game can effectively counteract a noisy crowd, as well. Ole Miss is a +14 in fast break points in its last two contests, largely fueled by Davis’ incendiary style of play. Look for the Rebels to get out and push the ball against the Razorbacks.
3) Someone not named Davis or Saiz needs to step up and have a career game. Saiz–the bastion of consistency for the Rebels–and Davis, Ole Miss’ newest budding stars, will contribute their share. But someone, be it Burnett, Cullen Neal, Breein Tyree, whoever, needs to step up and have a statement game. Neal showed flashes of heroics against Auburn with 20 crucial points, so look for his potential to get hot early.
As if this team needed any more motivation, noted bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Arkansas slated as an 11 seed in his latest mock bracket. Contrarily, he doesn’t even have the Rebels in the “Bubble” conversation. A healthy, NCAA Tournament-hungry team will emerge from Saturday night’s contest; it’s just a matter of who wants it more.