Buck Stops Here

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy has long praised the potential of Reginald Buckner, and for good reason. Buckner is arguably Ole Miss' most physically gifted player.

But for most of his career, Buckner has struggled to turn that potential into production. That is, until last week. Buckner played his best games in an Ole Miss uniform in critical wins over Kentucky, then ranked No. 10 nationally, and Arkansas.

Against Kentucky, Buckner was a force in the paint. He had 12 points, five rebounds and five blocks. One of those blocks ended up amongst SportsCenter's top plays. The sophomore forward followed with another impressive outing at Arkansas, when he tied Ansu Sesay's school record for blocks in a game with eight.

"It all starts with him being on the floor," Kennedy said.

Buckner played his best games in an Ole Miss uniform against Kentucky and Arkansas, both wins.
Courtesy: Bruce Newman

In both games, Buckner played at least 28 minutes -- a drastic turnaround from previous games.

He averaged 4.4 fouls in Ole Miss' five conference losses, fouling out twice. He played more than 25 minutes in only two of those losses, and when he did, he averaged 10.5 points and 8.5 rebounds.

"Him being on the floor in and of itself is a big improvement from where we were at the beginning of league play," Kennedy said.

"It allows our team to establish a much better rhythm, not only offensively but defensively as well. With his ability to block shots and alter shots at the rim, it allows our team to take on a different mindset defensively."

"He's been a lot different," junior guard Trevor Gaskins said. "He's playing harder. I'm not saying he wasn't playing hard before, it's just making the right plays and being smart on certain stuff. I think one of the biggest things for Reg is staying in the game, making smart plays."

Terrance Henry, Buckner's front court companion, said Buckner's ability to stay out of foul trouble and remain in the game allows him more freedom on the floor offensively. Henry, with a slashing style, can face-up defenders while Buckner "holds everything down in the paint."

"I think we complement each other real well," Henry said. "I hate playing without him."

"By (Henry) saying that alone, it means something to me," Kennedy said. "If he feels that way, then I'm all for it. The reality is those guys are key components for us. The questions coming into the season were, ‘What about your front line?' If those guys play well, if you notice, our team is in almost every game. That'll continue to be the case."

Buckner has already surpassed his own single-season record for blocks (64) with 72 this season. In only his second year, Buckner ranks second in school history with 136 blocks for his career. The Memphis, Tenn., native is only 44 blocks shy of the career record set by Sean Murphy.

But blocking shots has never been the problem for Buckner. Rather, the 6-foot-9, 238-pound Buckner has routinely struggled to play consistent minutes.

Henry said Buckner's presence in the paint allows him more freedom on the floor offensively.
AP File Photo
"Awareness, to me," Kennedy said, when asked of the key factor in Buckner's emergence. "I've been saying it all year; you have to be aware. The game goes so quickly. I think Reg's awareness has gotten much better."

Ole Miss is lacking considerably in depth behind Buckner. When he's had to miss time, Kennedy has usually turned to junior college transfer Steadman Short, and sometimes true freshman Demarco Cox.

And while Short has had a few admirable performances -- he averages just over three points and three rebounds per game -- Cox has been relatively quiet in conference play. Cox has played no more than three minutes in the team's last five games.

Put simply, the more Buckner, the better.

"We sometimes forget, a lot of responsibility has been put on Reg and he's still a 19-year-old sophomore who's figuring things out," Kennedy said. "He's been able to stay on the floor longer. His awareness has been better. As a result, I think it's helped his timing, I think it's helped his conditioning and it's certainly helped our team."

Familiar Foe:

Three weeks ago Saturday, Ole Miss tripped to Baton Rouge, La., having lost its first four Southeastern Conference games for its worst league start since 2000. The Rebels desperately needed a win. LSU was reeling.

Ole Miss easily handled the rival Tigers with a 27-point blowout. Now in early February, the teams meet again. But one team, Ole Miss, has reversed its course for the better as the two teams head towards an 8 p.m. tip.

The Rebels (15-8, 3-5 SEC) are fresh off their most successful week this season, grabbing those back-to-back wins. LSU, meanwhile, has lost each of its last six conference games. Tonight's game will be carried by CSS.

"I wish I could tell you one game had to do with the next, but in college basketball, it really doesn't," Kennedy said. "For us, it's about coming out with the right approach, play hard, continue to work on the things we've shown improvement on the last week."

"We don't need to relax," Henry said. "We're on a little win streak, a couple of games. LSU, they really haven't been playing very good. They've been struggling. We're just going to come out and play hard and try to keep this win streak going."

Gaskins said it's hard not to overlook LSU (10-13, 2-6 SEC). The Tigers are just 2-7 away from home this season. LSU, the first repeat SEC opponent for Ole Miss, is led by freshmen Andre Stringer (13 ppg) and Ralston Turner (12.1 ppg).

"Of course it's hard because you're playing a team twice," Gaskins said. "They know your plays, we know their plays. It's just all about execution, who wants it more and who's more focused."

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