Brand-name showdown for Rebels in San Juan

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy hopes his team can improve in doing the little things to knock off a big-name opponent.
After decisive wins against Arkansas-Little Rock and Alabama State, the Rebels take on Indiana today at 4 p.m. in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-off. The game will be on ESPN2.
Both teams are 2-0, Indiana having won against Howard (83-60) and South Carolina-Upstate (69-61).
The Hoosiers hope a freshman class of six can help them get past last year’s 6-25 campaign. Still one of the most inexperienced teams in the Big 10, Indiana has only one player, reserve Brett Finkelmeier, who has been in the program for at least two years.
Contributing to the Hoosiers’ experience void is guard Nick Williams, who started 29 games and averaged 8.9 points last season before transferring to Ole Miss. He is sitting out this season.
“They’re awfully young, but they’re very athletic. They brought in a very highly rated class,” Kennedy said.
The winner gets the Kansas State-Boston University winner in the second round. The Rebels will play today, Friday and Sunday. Ole Miss is 1-7 against Big 10 Conference opponents, but players are excited about stepping up in competition.
“We want to make a statement and prove we can compete with the best,” junior guard Zach Graham said.
The Rebels have competed with the Sun Belt Conference and the SWAC quite well, though things can always be better.
Ole Miss has held its opponents to 58.5 points a game. The Rebels have blocked 15 shots, nine of them by freshman Reggie Buckner, who had five blocked shots against Alabama State on Monday.
Ole Miss has collected 31 steals and is plus-12.5 in turnover margin.
That defense has led to offense, but the guard-heavy lineup has yet to heat up its perimeter shooting. Guards Terrico White and Chris Warren are shooting just 25 percent and 15.4 percent from 3-point range.
“That is not a concern,” junior guard Eniel Polynice said. “It’s just about repetition, getting up shots. Defense wins games. As long as we keep playing defense and keep turning people over, we’ll be all right.”
Kennedy is pleased with his team’s start but wants to see more from his offense.
“We’re missing a lot of little chippies at the rim. It could be tempo; it could be whatever. We’re missing a lot of free throws. Those are things that ultimately you can’t do to do the things we want to do, and that’s play for championships. We’re still scoring a lot of points, but we’re not as efficient as we need to be offensively.”
Kennedy used a nine-player rotation in the first two games. Sophomore Terrance Henry is expected to rejoin that mix today. A slender 6-foot-9 last season, Henry has bulked up to 200 pounds, weight that should help him be a more physical player in the lane.
Kennedy says the Puerto Rico trip will be a good measuring stick for the Rebels.
“The reason we scheduled this is it gives us an opportunity to see where we are. You’re going to get great national exposure as the tournament is run by ESPN. We’re going to have an opportunity to play teams from BCS leagues such as ourselves. It will give us a gauge as to where we are and let us know what things to work on heading into conference play.”

Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or parrish.alford@djournal.com

Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal