By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss, ranked as high as No. 16 in the nation just a couple of weeks ago, will try to snap out of the doldrums and rescue a season that once seemed destined for the NCAA tournament when it hosts Georgia tonight.
Tipoff at Tad Smith Coliseum is 7 p.m., and the game will be televised by ESPN2.
Georgia struggled through the non-conference season but was one of the SEC’s hottest teams – winning five in a row – before falling 52-45 at home against Alabama on Tuesday night.
For Ole Miss to win, it will have to find a way to guard one of the league’s top NBA prospects in Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, second to the Rebels’ Marshall Henderson in SEC scoring. Henderson is averaging 19.5 points a game – though he was held to his SEC low of 10 points in the Rebels’ 69-67 loss at Texas A&M on Wednesday – and Caldwell-Pope averaging 17.7 a game.
Defending any shooter – whether Kentucky’s secondary option, Kyle Wiltjer, Florida star Erik Murphy or Texas A&M’s streaky Elston Turner – has been a problem as Ole Miss has lost four of its last five games.
The Rebels had no answer for Turner, the son of former Ole Miss star Elston Turner, who lit them up for 37 points and shot 65 percent from the floor.
“We tried to slow down Elston, but it was not enough. We talked for two days about how you can’t give him space. He is going to go to his right hand,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We gave him space and he got away early.”
Since scoring a season-high 24 points on 5 for 12 3-point shooting, Wiltjer has been held to single-digits three times in four games and has peaked at 14 points.
Murphy, another 6-foot-10 matchup problem, was 5 for 6 from 3-point range against Ole Miss.
Missouri’s success was more of a team effort, as guards Phil Pressey, Keion Bell and Jabari Brown combined to go 10 for 18 from 3-point range.
Their work created spacing issues in the middle and allowed Missouri center Alex Oriakhi to shoot 7 for 10 from close range and finish with 22 points and 18 rebounds.
Over the life of the school-record SEC-opening six-game win streak, five opponents were held to below 30 percent 3-point shooting.
Caldwell-Pope, fifth in the league in 3-point accuracy at 37.5 percent, has that potential. He’s a bigger-body guy who can also defend – second in steals at 2.2 per game – and rebound.
“Our first-shot defense hasn’t been as good as it needs to be,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got to get back to the way that we’ve shown capable in order for us to be successful. That’s rebound, defend, get the shots to the right people at the right spots and knock a few of them down.”