SEC BASKETBALL TOURNEY: Facing quality rival, Rebels need victory

By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal

NASHVILLE – For Ole Miss, the first NCAA tournament trip since 2002 may hang in the balance in the Rebels’ SEC tournament quarterfinal game against Tennessee.
With that in mind, Vols coach Bruce Pearl took a sneak peak at Ole Miss in his office while preparing his team for its SEC opener against LSU.
“I looked at Ole Miss myself on Sunday and Monday because I had to,”he said. “But I promise you, we prepared for LSU, even if it didn’t look like it.”
Tennessee made today’s speculated matchup official by overcoming a lethargic first half and poor shooting against the LSU zone to win 59-49.
The East No. 3 seed Vols and West No. 2 seed Rebels meet at 2:15 p.m., today at the Bridgestone Center.
“We wish we were in a position where we didn’t feel that our backs were against the wall, but we are in a position to control our own destiny,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
Ole Miss might not be in this position had it successfully closed its game against Tennessee in January, when it led the Vols by 12 points late in the second half. The Rebels (21-9, 9-7) have come this far, however, only by winning four straight. Over one stretch of play, Ole Miss lost five of six games.
As the Rebels seek a third win against an opponent in the RPI top 50 to present to the selection committee on Sunday, Pearl says his team’s 71-69 overtime victory against Ole Miss is a quality win for the Vols (24-7), who went 11-5 in the SEC regular season.
Pearl mentioned the Ole Miss victory with Tennessee’s wins over Kentucky and Kansas.
“They have good depth, and they are playing for their tournament lives. With our record and ranking, we know we would be a quality win for them,” Pearl said.

Revolving door
The rematch is also like a revolving door of impact players. Back in the fold for Tennessee are guards Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum and center Brian Williams.
All three were suspended for various lengths of time after a routine traffic stop on Jan. 1 resulted in a charge of gun possession and other problems. All-SEC forward Tyler Smith was dismissed over the incident.
Against LSU, Tatum played 19 minutes, Goins 18, and they combined for eight points.
Williams, however, dominated the glass with 14 rebounds.
“Goins and Tatum give them depth, but then Williams (6-10, 278) gives them the huge body inside,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy has his own player issue for his second shot at Tennessee. Junior guard Eniel Polynice, the Rebels’ leader in assists and turnovers, was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team” and did not play in last Saturday’s 68-66 win at Arkansas in the regular season finale.
On Tuesday, Kennedy announced that Polynice was back with the team. He was vague on how – if at all – Polynice, a 25-game starter with 9.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists, would be used.
“We’ll see. He’ll be ready to roll. We’ll see how the game unfolds,” Kennedy said.
Polynice had four points and nine rebounds in the Jan. 16 loss in Knoxville.
The Vols flirted with disaster in their tournament opener, unable to knock down shots as LSU dictated tempo with a slow-down offense and a zone defense.

Trying to stay fresh
Pearl said he purposely did not press the Tigers more and try to speed up the game, because he kept in mind the possibility of his team having to play four games in four days.
Ultimately, the Vols got it going, because Williams kept giving them the ball.
“I think he’s playing like he has something to prove in regard to what happened earlier this year,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said.
Williams agreed.
“You don’t always get a second opportunity,” he said. “Coach and the university have given me something that I’m blessed to have, and I’m trying to take advantage of that.”

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