Interim head coach Tony Madlock and a reinspired Ole Miss team made their debuts last week with a 90-87 win at Missouri, who had previously walked into The Pavilion and handily beaten Andy Kennedy’s Rebels. Now, after dropping a game to No. 19 Tennessee over the weekend, the Rebels turn their attention to a Wednesday night showdown with SEC powerhouse Kentucky.
Even in a loss, the Rebels’ second game under Madlock showed improvements. In the context of this season, the game was an improvement from the team’s last match with the Vols. Having fallen earlier in the month to Tennessee by a score of 94-61, the 73-65 loss Saturday came as something of a relief.
That being said, with a spot in the NIT on the line, the Rebels cannot afford to phone any further games in. With just two regular-season games remaining on their schedule, the Rebs are in a tough spot. A 109th-ranked RPI certainly won’t help the not-even-NIT-lock Rebels secure a postseason berth.
The win at Mizzou was clutch for this team, and a win at home against Vanderbilt to finish the season is another must-win. However, the perfect opportunity to make the statement that this team deserves a spot in the NIT will arrive Wednesday night in Lexington.
The Rebels take on No. 23 Kentucky for the first and only time this season in one of the most intimidating arenas in all of college basketball. From a pure talent perspective, the Wildcats could be the most challenging opponent the Rebels have faced all season, but victory is not an impossible task.
In Saturday’s 73-65 loss against Tennessee, the team did not look completely incapable of good basketball. This, sadly, was new for the Rebels. For so many games in a row near the end of Andy Kennedy’s tenure, the team looked to have completely given up by the second half.
If the Rebels can continue to execute as they did while playing Tennessee, exerting consistent defensive pressure and getting the ball in Bruce Stevens’ and other scorers’ hands, they could pull off an improbable win. The problems Ole Miss has faced seem to have reversed since the beginning of the season. For example, while the defense was locked in against Tennessee, the Rebel offense only converted on one of 23 attempts from 3.
Against a Wildcat team that prides itself on defense this season, Madlock’s shooters will need to recover their form. Deandre Burnett has been absent lately beyond the arc. For the Rebels to make a big push against this star-studded Kentucky defense, Burnett and Terence Davis will both need to find their hot hands. Stevens, whose numbers have continued to impress throughout Ole Miss’ lull, must rise to the occasion when faced with defensive monsters like Kentucky’s 6-foot-9-inch Wenyen Gabriel.
On the defensive end, the Rebels must limit perimeter looks and transition points. Just as Admiral Schofield sealed the game with his hot shooting for the Vols last weekend, superstar forward Kevin Knox is perfectly capable of picking apart a defense. With guard-like athleticism and a mobile play style, Knox is a matchup nightmare. Most likely, the responsibility will fall on Terence Davis and Marcanvis Hymon to tie down the always-dangerous big man.
The Rebels are set to tip off against the Wildcats at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Lexington, Kentucky.