'Work in progress' Rebs showed up against Falcons

MILWAUKEE - Ole Miss and Illinois State, two teams coming off embarrassing losses Monday night, meet today at 5:30 p.m. at the Bradley Center in an attempt to go home with a 2-1 worksheet from the BCA Tournament.

I don't know how the Redbird program would feel about going 2-1 as opposed to a perfect 3-0 here, but for the Rebel program winning two of three in this tourney would be a huge accomplishment at this point.

Ole Miss lost to Air Force 60-36 in day two of this affair. In the game that followed, Illinois State fell to host Marquette 60-32. So a lot will be at stake tonight as these two meet. Both opened with wins - Ole Miss getting the best of South Carolina State and Illinois State taking care of Penn State.

The Redbirds were 10-19 last season and, like the Rebels, are in a rebuilding mode. After looking at the scores from last night, you know Ole Miss and Illinois State players have to be thinking the same thing right now - this is one we can win.

Monday night against the Falcons, the Rebels ran into a veteran team that used its experience to wear down its opponent. Here's a very telling quote from a humble first-year head coach of the Falcons, Chris Mooney. See if you don't agree.

"I believe that Ole Miss goes into a game with the idea of wearing an opponent down with its defense," said Mooney, at 32 years of age one of the youngest head coaches in Division I basketball. "I believe that we go into a game with the idea of wearing an opponent down with our offense and our defense."

Talk about having all bases covered. The Falcons are confident in what they do and lately, with a 22-7 school-best record last year and an NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since 1962, they've proved it. They won the Mountain West conference last season - that's against teams like BYU, Utah, UNLV, Wyoming, San Diego State, Colorado State, and New Mexico. The Falcons returned three starters and 11 lettermen.

I thought the Rebs had a shot in this one because they'd be more athletic and in equally as good a shape as the guys from the Air Force Academy. But as Mooney stated, they had both pieces of the puzzle, and the Rebs only one piece.

Defense. It's what Rod Barnes lives for.

Offense. It's what Rod's teams have to improve or they'll have a hard time getting back to the winning ways they long for.

To be fair, and Rod mentioned this after the press conference Monday night, the players he is able to put on the floor, especially the younger ones, aren't yet fully capable of understanding all that a team like Air Force can do defensively. Getting an open shot was tough for the Rebels all night, and eventually it wore them down mentally, physically, emotionally.

Rod Barnes can coach defense like few college coaches in the country. No team plays harder, especially on the defensive end. Offensively Rod is at his best when he has greater talent and more experienced talent than he has right now.

Offensively I believe this team will improve. But I also believe it will be a slow, tedious process, and there will be some losses along the way because of it. The newcomers will learn and get better. They will improve and understand the system in the weeks ahead.

It might have helped in a game like this to have had Cavadas Nunnery, the senior point guard, available. But he's still recovering from a knee injury suffered in practice last week and probably won't play tonight either.

The Rebels will continue to wear foes down with their defense. But when they run into a team like Air Force which does the same thing with its defense and also milks the shot clock every offensive possession, it's tough - unless you clearly have superior talent and experience, which the Rebels do not right now.

Falcon junior center Nick Welch said he and his teammates saw as the game went on that they were wearing Ole Miss down, which is often what Ole Miss players say they see from their opponents. Not this time.

"Anytime you play against us, it's a situation where you have to play defense for 35 seconds every possession, and at the end of that possession we're going to get a wide open layup or a wide open three," said a confident Welch postgame. "A lot of times tonight they were working really, really hard on defense, and right there at the last second we were hitting shots and making them. That really wore them down for when they had to go on offense. Anybody who plays defense for 30 to 35 seconds doesn't want to have to play offense right after that."

The question was asked of Coach Mooney how his team kept Ole Miss' offense on the perimeter for much of the game. It's what a lot of teams have done to the Rebels the last few years.

"Hmmm, that's a good question," said Mooney, obviously knowing pregame that doing so is a key to beating Ole Miss. "We had a good scouting report."

The officiating in the contest was not what the Rebels are used to seeing either. This was no SEC crew. They called it tight, much moreso than the first-game crew when Ole Miss beat South Carolina State.

They got a little technical happy, too. Ole Miss got three; AFA got one. Rod got one for being too far out on the court, like maybe three feet out and on the opposite end of the action. It could have just as easily been a no call. I've often thought Rod (and other head coaches) sometimes gets in the way a bit on the sidelines when the action is right in front of them.

When he got the "T" Monday night, however, there wasn't a player within 15 feet.

The Rebels were 5-of-8 from the free throw line. Air Force was 18-of-29. The AFA head coach had an explanation.

"We don't foul that much, so we don't give our opponents a lot of free throws," said Mooney, a former Princeton player under Hall of Fame Coach Pete Carril at the Ivy League school. "As aggressive as they (Ole Miss) play, they are bound to foul. It was a physical game."

Rod felt a little bit different than that afterwards, but obviously nothing would change at that point.

"We're a team that really gets up and denies and pressures," Rod said. "The game was called in their favor. I'm not saying the referees were unfair. But when it's a game of no touches, then it's going to be in their favor because of the way they play, and it's not going to be in the favor of the way we play. We just didn't make the adjustments in the second half to be successful. It was a much closer called game tonight than it was last night (against South Carolina State)."

This was a game Air Force wanted to win - and win badly. They consider beating Ole Miss, an SEC team, as a real feather in their collective caps.

"This game was important to us," Mooney said. "I know our guys' eyes lit up when they saw Ole Miss on our schedule and possibly Marquette. This type game is what our guys want. They want to be playing bigtime teams as often as possible."

Rebel sophomore guard Todd Abernethy said preparing for a team like Air Force takes perhaps more time than the Rebels had, given that they are playing three games in three days and the AFA game was the one in the middle.

"It was tough out there tonight, and it was frustrating not getting good shots and then not making them when we got them," the SEC Player of the Week this week said. "We just don't see their type of game much in the SEC. Vanderbilt is the only one, with the backdoor cuts and the Princeton offense. It's tough to prepare for that type team in a short period of time."

Ole Miss senior guard Justin Johnson says it's all about Illinois State now for the Rebels. The Air Force game is over.

"We have to get this loss out of our heads and put it behind us," he said. "We have a big game (Tuesday night). This tournament is a good learning experience for us. We want to get another win and head back home."

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