The Rebels had lost four of their first five SEC games when the Tennessee Volunteers rolled into town Jan. 17, and they were without starting guard Deandre Burnett, who suffered a high-ankle in a loss to Georgia. Then came the unthinkable: Senior guard Rasheed Brooks fell to the court mid-game with a seizure.
But despite playing short-handed, and facing the traumatic reality of a fallen teammate, Ole Miss rallied. The Rebels overcame a 13-point, second-half Tennessee deficit to win, 80-69, holding Tennessee without a field goal in the final 4:13.
And they’ve only continued to improve as the rush of March Madness inches closer.
“We’ve gotten back whole from a personnel standpoint,” head coach Andy Kennedy said. “We only have nine scholarship players. Deandre Burnett is finally off the injury report. We get it daily, and his name has been on it every time until here as of recent. He’s fully recovered from the high-ankle sprain he suffered against Georgia early in the season. Obviously the Rasheed Brooks situation and the seizure he went through. Now that we’ve gotten both of those guys back and whole.”
Ole Miss has won three of its last five games, while the Volunteers reeled off four-straight wins before losing at Mississippi State on Saturday. The teams meet again tonight at 5:30 p.m., each team in desperate need of a Top 100 RPI win to pad their respective NCAA Tournament resumes.
Ole Miss is 14-9 on the season, including a 5-5 record in SEC games. Tennessee, meanwhile, is 13-10 (5-5 SEC). The Rebels have won six of their last seven against the Vols. The game, which will be played in Knoxville, Tenn., is set for broadcast on the SEC Network.
“(Tennessee head) coach (Rick) Barnes has done an incredible job,” Kennedy said. “Most people in the preseason had them ranked in the lower tier in the league. They have certainly exceeded those expectations from day one. They opened league play by going in and winning at A&M. They’ve had some great non-league wins and some really close losses. They go and lose by one in Chapel Hill; they play Gonzaga right to the bitter end on a neutral site. They obviously represented the league well in the Big 12 challenge by beating a good Kansas State team. I think they’ve played well all year.”
Wednesday marks the end of a two-game road swing for the Rebels, who check in at No. 57 in the latest RPI rankings released by the NCAA. Tennessee is No. 35. Ole Miss is 5-9 against the RPI Top 115, and it boasts the 31st toughest strength of schedule this season. Ole Miss has played the 34th toughest non-conference schedule, according to ESPN.com.
Tennessee is led by senior guard Robert Hubbs III, who is averaging a team-high 14.3 points and is second on the team with 5.3 boards a game. Freshman forward Grant Williams is second with 11.5 ppg and leads the Vols pulling down 5.5 rebounds a game. Tennessee ranks 12th in the league 3-point field goals made hitting just 6.2 per game.
“They guard you,” Kennedy said. “They play within their identity. They have good, young players. And then Robert Hubbs, the senior, is playing like an all-league player. I know they’re coming off a disappointing second half on the road against Mississippi State, but prior to that they were playing as well as anybody in our league.”
Kennedy said there’s plenty the Rebels can learn from their previous meeting with the Vols.
“We were able to win the game because we closed the game very strongly,” he said. “It started defensively. We held them under 30 percent field goal shooting in the second half. We were able to get out in the open floor. We win the game despite Deandre not being in uniform and Rasheed going down early in the second half. We shot 1 for 14 from 3 as a team. We shot less than 65 percent from the free throw line. Hopefully those are areas we can improve upon. It was three weeks ago; both teams have changed dramatically in a lot of ways. Wednesday will be an indicator as to the progression of our group.”
On the recruitment of Breein Tyree: “Breein’s a kid we saw on the AAU circuit in the summer. It’s not usual for us to recruit the state of New Jersey, for obvious reasons. But he played at a high school that had two SEC greats — one in Karl Anthony-Towns at Kentucky and then Wade Baldwin at Vanderbilt. He was more familiar with the SEC than you would initially imagine. We go up and show him strong interest, we get him on our campus, and he liked what we had to sale. We’re fortunate that he chose to be a part of our program. He tore his ACL in April after his senior year, which really slowed him down from a progression standpoint. It’s taken him a little while to get back from a health standpoint. As he has gotten healthy and more confident and more experienced, our team has gotten better.”
On Tyree’s athleticism: “He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s probably only 75-80 percent from an explosive standpoint (in his return from injury). I think his lateral quickness is coming back quicker, but he’s really an explosive guy in the open floor. That’s really his No. 1 asset as a player. One of the things that jumped off the page when we started recruiting him is his athleticism and ability to attack in the open floor. We’re starting to see glimpses of that, but it’s not anywhere near as to what it was prior to the injury. But it’s coming every day.”
On if Ole Miss’ decrease in turnovers (eight or fewer in three straight) is primarily a product of Tyree handling the ball: “I think it’s as simple as that. It brings a primary ball-handler back into the equation, and it allows you to move guys back into their natural positions. A lot of times we were trying to stick square pegs into round holes just based on necessity. Now that we have our full compliment of guards back, I think we’re finding ourselves more efficient offensively.”