Big, big week: Rebels brace for back-to-back ranked foes

John Calipari, whose Kentucky team lost at home to Florida on Saturday, brings his 18th-ranked Wildcats – with five freshmen starters – to Oxford tonight. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

John Calipari, whose Kentucky team lost at home to Florida on Saturday, brings his 18th-ranked Wildcats – with five freshmen starters – to Oxford tonight. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

OXFORD – While Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy pleads for bigger play from his bigs, Kentucky coach John Calipari says, “Hey, those guys aren’t so bad.”

The No. 18-ranked Wildcats take on Ole Miss at Tad Smith Coliseum tonight at 6, the first of two games this week for the Rebels against the SEC’s top teams.

Florida, which rose to No. 2 this week, visits on Saturday.

Tonight’s game will be televised by ESPN.

The Rebels (16-9, 7-5 SEC) have dropped to fourth in the SEC standings, the last spot that earns the “double-bye” in the conference tournament.

With a rebound margin of minus-3.6, Ole Miss shares the No. 301 spot among 345 teams nationally with Mississippi Valley State.

In four-straight road losses the Rebels have been minus-14 on the glass on average.

The Rebels have out-rebounded their opponent in three of five SEC home games.

Kennedy has tinkered with his lineup in search of a rebounding answer. In a 61-60 loss at Georgia Saturday, freshman Dwight Coleby got his first start and responded with six rebounds, all in the first half when he played 14 of his 21 minutes.

Junior Aaron Jones and freshman Sebastian Saiz have the most SEC starts among the bigs.

The difference in style from this year’s Ole Miss frontcourt over last year’s, when Murphy Holloway and Reggie Buckner helped the Rebels finish in the upper half of the league with a plus-1.4 margin, hasn’t been lost on Kentucky coach John Calipari.

“Those younger guys are pretty good players. They’re different, more athletic. They give them a different dimension. Those other two were veteran, big-body guys. They were hard to go against,” Calipari said.

Kentucky (19-6, 9-3) is coming off a 69-59 home loss to Florida.

The Wildcats had 41 rebounds to the Rebels’ 26 when Kentucky pulled away in the second half and won 80-64 in Lexington on Feb. 4.

Kennedy said Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot, 244-pound sophomore, played his best college game.

Cauley-Stein had 11 rebounds, five on the offensive end, and also shot 7-for-8 from the floor to lead five Wildcats in double figures with 18 points.

“We couldn’t get a rebound. It’s been like a broken record for us,” Kennedy said.

“We had some team rebounds, but the first one grabbed by an Ole Miss Rebel was not until less than 2 minutes left in the second half. They got control of the game at about the 10-minute mark, and then we were trying to hold on for dear life.”

parrish.alford@journalInc.com