The No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels (17-2, 6-0 SEC) are set to rumble with a young Kentucky Wildcat club Tuesday evening in Oxford, MS at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN, as the Rebels look to earn their 10th straight win.
Head coach Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss just keep finding ways to win, period. It's impressive. The Rebels are off to their best start in school history dating back to the school's inaugural season of basketball in 1909.
Coming off of two come-from-behind victories against conference foes Tennessee and Auburn in their last two outings, Kennedy's Rebels simply don't know how to lose right now. In reality, the Rebels should have lost their last two games after horrid first-half performances. However, they are proving to be a team with a truly amazing will to win basketball games.
Tuesday evening in Oxford, though, Ole Miss will face yet another litmus test, as the storied Kentucky Wildcats (13-6, 4-2 SEC) make a trip to the Tad Smith Coliseum. While head coach John Calipari's Wildcats have lost some luster after winning the school's eighth national championship in 2012, they are a very young team, who are only gaining confidence as the season progresses.
Sure, the Wildcats compiled four losses in nonconference play earlier this season, but the losses came to the likes of Duke, Baylor, Notre Dame and Louisville. There's no doubt Calipari would have rather seen victories in each of those respective games, but playing against such high-quality opponents early in the season will only help the young Wildcats as conference play continues.
Led by freshman guard Archie Goodwin (14.6 ppg) and freshman forward Alex Poythress (13.1 ppg), Kentucky boasts a 4-2 conference record, and it's only getting better with each game it plays.
With wins over the same conference opponents (Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Auburn) who Ole Miss had such trouble disposing of in recent weeks, the folks in Oxford should be on high alert when the Big Blue roll into Oxford early this week.
Ole Miss may not have the same opportunity to dig itself out of a hole against Kentucky, as it did against the likes of Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Auburn. Whether you are a fan of the ostentatious coach or not, John Calipari simply knows how to make his teams mentally tough, as they inch towards postseason play when intensity increases a notch or two.
What must the Rebels do to not find themselves fighting for life late against Kentucky?
1. Come out of the locker room for tip-off with a sense of urgency.
The Rebels simply haven't been able to begin the first five minutes of recent games with any real productivity. That must change against the Wildcats, if Ole Miss desires to push its conference record to an impressive 7-0. Ole Miss needs to find success from the field immediately after tipoff and get an early lead to build confidence.
2. Marshall, Marshall, Marshall
SEC scoring leader (19.2 ppg) Marshall Henderson needs to find a hot hand early against a stingy Kentucky defense only yielding 62 points per game.
Henderson has put up quality numbers lately, but the bulk of them have not come until the second half of games. It will work in the Rebels' favor if Henderson can sink a few three-point baskets early, which will help him get in a good state of mind for the entire game.
3. Take advantage of opportunities at the charity stripe.
While Marshall Henderson may be a streaky shooter, Ole Miss, as a team, has proven to be even streakier from the free-throw line in recent games.
Look no further than their last outing to see a glaring blemish in the box score at Auburn, as the Rebels only went 4-17 from the charity stripe. Free-throw percentage (currently 67.4 percent) must improve beginning Tuesday evening against the Cats, if Kennedy's club wants to play deep into March.
4. Murphy Holloway, Reginald Buckner must dominate on the boards.
Rebel forwards Murphy Holloway (10.4 rpg) and Reginald Buckner (7.9 rpg) are two main reasons the Rebels are one of the best rebounding teams in the SEC, but Kentucky is not too shabby on the glass itself.
Wildcat freshman Nerlens Noel currently ranks second in rebounds per game behind Holloway, pulling in a respectable 9.4 rebounds per game. The team who performs better on the boards will definitely have an edge.
5. Stay in the continued good graces of the basketball gods.
For whatever reason, Ole Miss has seen more than its fair share of fortunate circumstances occur in the 2012-2013 season.
From Marshall Henderson's near half-court heave to give the Rebels second life against Vanderbilt, to being able to grind out wins despite very poor performances against lesser teams in recent weeks, the basketball gods have been smiling on Kennedy's Rebels.
Every team needs a little luck now and then, and it would behoove the Rebels to keep getting some bounces to fall their way.
In yet another prime time slot on ESPN Tuesday night at home, Ole Miss has a prime opportunity to impress folks watching, which will ultimately determine what type of seed it is granted in the NCAA Tournament. This time, the Rebels need to take full advantage and showcase their talents.
Ole Miss 70 - Kentucky 65
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