Inside Key

Reginald Buckner's value to this Ole Miss basketball team is unquestioned. In fact, it may almost be unfair to place so much importance on one player.

But for the Rebels, that's the way it has to be for now, at least at the center position. Look no further than the loss to Dayton earlier. Then look at Saturday's win against East Tennessee State.

Buckner went down to a knee injury in the first minute of the second half of the Rebels' 78-71 overtime loss to the Flyers back on Nov. 20. The Rebs were ahead by 16 points early in the second half. They were never the same after the 6-foot-9 center left the game.

Fast-forward to Ole Miss' 71-50 win against the Buccaneers two days ago. Buckner admitted it was his best game, and the stats proved it. He had career highs for minutes played (33), points in a contest (16), and blocked shots (7).

Shot-blocking is his expertise. He was one of the most prolific players in that department in high school to ever attend Ole Miss when he joined the team prior to last season out of Manassas High School in Memphis, Tenn.

And while he's as good at that as ever, his game is more well-rounded than it was in the past.

"It all starts with practice," Buckner admitted as to why things are better for him. "My hard work pays off. The last two weeks, I've been going extra hard. I've been taking extra shots (in practice), and it's paying off in games."

Buckner said he keeps hearing from his coaches how valuable he is to his team when he is effective in all areas.

"Coach (Andy Kennedy) said they (players) feed off my energy, so if I go hard, we all go hard," Buckner said. "And we're going to get a W."

Buckner admitted being on the court for more minutes in a game seems to help.

"I feel like since I was out there longer I was able to get in a rhythm," said Buckner, who had been averaging 21 minutes a game prior to the ETSU contest. "I was able to get it going, and that was what it was."

Kennedy, in his fifth season at Ole Miss, said Buckner continues to improve, and that's a plus for the Rebels.

Reginald Buckner

"He obviously gives us a defensive presence," Kennedy said. "He erased a lot of shots at the rim, and I thought he gave us an intimidating presence in there."

Kennedy said it was also obvious to him that the big men from East Tennessee State were bothered by Buckner's presence.

"I thought on a couple of their misses they were looking over their shoulder like, ‘where is he, where is No. 2?' and that's what a shot blocker can do for you," he said. "We've never had that before."

The trouble for the team may be that Buckner, while certainly not all they have inside, is "the" key for this team in the paint. He needs to remain healthy for the Rebels to be as good as they can be.

Freshman Demarco Cox, at 6-8 averaging 10 minutes a game, continues to improve but has just nine Division I games under his belt. Junior JUCO transfer Steadman Short, 6-9, is averaging 17 minutes but was out of action against ETSU with what is considered a brief stomach illness.

Junior Terrance Henry, listed this season at 6-10, is one of the seasoned veterans inside and a key for this team as well. But he's also listed at 210 pounds, and he wouldn't be considered a banger in the paint with the broader, more physical players at this level.

Kennedy said offensively Buckner continues to progress also.

"When we get him touches at point-blank range, we want him to score," he said. "And he has done a much better job of it. His field-goal percentage is off the chart."

It currently is at .645 as Buckner has made 20 of 31 field goals this season.

Kennedy said it will be interesting to watch Buckner continue to get better, and that the ball is in his own court, so to speak.

"No question he's a work in progress," Kennedy said. "Reggie can be as good as he wants to be."

Buckner said he believes with hard work, patience, and focus, more games like the one Saturday are in his future.

"I did it all," he said of his performance against the Bucs. "I rebounded, I scored, I blocked shots. I think it was my best game of the year so far."

So far. But there are many more likely to come for the talented Reginald Buckner.

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