By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss players understood clearly the gravity of the situation, a 69-64 loss to Mississippi State on Thursday night.
Putting it into words was complicated, though.
In the big picture, there’s plenty of SEC basketball still to play, but the Rebels now play it with the notion that they’re quite vulnerable at home, this at full strength and with all hands on deck.
Ole Miss players said the right things. They talked about going back to work, moving forward, because it’s what players say.
They’re not going to say, “Man, that was huge. I can’t believe we let it slip away.” They don’t want to say that when there are still 14 SEC games on the table.
But sometimes body language says it for them.
In truth, Andy Kennedy’s greatest coaching challenge at Ole Miss may be in the hours leading to today’s 4 p.m., tip against Georgia, a very athletic team that won nine straight – including 77-70 over Kentucky – to enter the rankings at No. 24 before losing its SEC road opener at Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
Kennedy has to refocus his players and guide them in trying to recapture the season, one of great expectation and the last chance for guard Chris Warren – who will be remembered as one of the program’s all-time greats – to achieve an NCAA tournament bid, the measuring stick of team success.
The MSU loss has the ingredients of one that could linger. The Bulldogs have a mental leg up in the series to begin with, an edge gained by their success on the Rebels’ home floor where they have now won six of the last 11 games played.
This time Ole Miss players knew it was a vulnerable MSU team arriving at Tad Smith. They were adding two high-caliber players, yes, but it was only the second game for Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney, and the first one hadn’t gone so well.
They were two players the Rebels would have to defend hard, but every SEC team will have at least two.
Outside influences said this was a game Ole Miss was supposed to win convincingly. If the Rebels heard that, they didn’t respond to the challenge.
Warren made clutch plays and big shots, but beyond a fast start from Zach Graham, he had very little help. These are not inexperienced players on the floor, but at crunch time they looked uncomfortable, and no one helped Warren with the big play.
Forgetting Thursday night will not be easily done, but if it isn’t, doubt will creep in, and players who have produced in big ways – rebounds, blocked shots, offense – will find it more difficult to do so. They’ll begin searching for that lightning bolt, a jolt of confidence that creates rhythm and reminds them they can trust their ability. Maybe that jolt will come in time, maybe not.
A matter of trust?
Players didn’t trust their ability against MSU, didn’t move well enough on defense to stay out of foul trouble, gave up key rebounding position. One thing led to another, and eventually there was another home loss to the in-state rival, this one when the other guys, though poised for improvement, had some weaknesses.
The SEC grind might allow you one game to focus on positives in defeat, and the Rebels had that at Florida.
This wasn’t to be a season of rebuilding for Ole Miss, and if the Rebels are to accomplish goals, the time has come to string together some wins within the league.
Starting that streak may take a little extra “coaching up” this afternoon.
Parrish Alford covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
No. 24 Georgia at Ole Miss
Tip: 4 p.m.
Radio: Ole Miss network. Satellite: Sirius 121, XM 141.
Series: Georgia leads 65-39
Last Year: Ole Miss 80-76 at Georgia
Coaches – Mark Fox, 149-63 in eight seasons, 26-20 in second season at Georgia … Andy Kennedy, 97-55 in fifth year at Ole Miss.
Notes: Ole Miss has won the last two in the series, including last year at Georgia with a key bucket late by guard Eniel Polynice, who has since transferred out of the program. … Chris Warren’s seven 3-point makes against MSU gives him a school-record 285 for his career. … The Rebels last started 0-2 in the SEC in 2007. The went on to finish 8-8 and share the SEC West title. … Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy used only eight players against MSU. One not getting on the floor was freshman center Demarco Cox, who played in each of the previous 16 games, drawing four starts.
Georgia 12-3, 1-1 SEC
Probable Starters Pts. Reb.
F Travis Leslie 6-4 Jr. 14.4 8.0
F Trey Thompkins 6-10 Jr. 17.7 7.6
F Jeremy Price 6-8 Sr. 8.1 4.7
G Dustin Ware 5-11 182 6.9 3.1*
G Gerald Robinson 6-1 Jr. 13.4 4.5*
C Chris Barnes 6-8 Sr. 3.9 3.9
G Sherrard Brantley 6-2 So. 3.1 0.8
* – assists per game
Ole Miss 12-5, 0-2 SEC
C Terrance Henry 6-10 Jr. 8.8 6.2
F Reggie Buckner 6-9 So. 7.1 6.8
G Zach Graham 6-6 Sr. 13.9 4.5
G Nick Williams 6-4 So. 8.` 4.3
G Chris Warren 5-10 Sr. 18.9 4.1*
G Trevor Gaskins 6-2 Jr. 9.0 3.2
G Dundrecous Nelson 5-11 Fr. 6.4 1.1
F Steadman Short 6-9 Jr. 3.5 4.1
* – assists per game