It's been almost a week since the Ole Miss Rebels started their basketball season with three games in three days. Since that time they've been working during Thanksgiving week to get better.
A 2-1 start wasn't bad in the Jim Thorpe Classic, all things considered. That's especially the case since the final contest of the three was the Rebels' best, a 71-47 win over South Carolina State.
The second of three games was a blowout at the hands of host New Mexico, with the season opener a 69-62 win over Southern Utah.
This week the Rebels kept coming back to that final game, the one that they played better defense, the one that showed they quickly put the lopsided loss to the Lobos behind them.
"We played harder on Sunday, and our kids learned to do that out there," said Ole Miss head coach Rod Barnes. "You can only tell them that so much, and then they have to experience it for themselves. Especially the new guys have to understand how hard you have to play all the time. Another thing is we executed and they knew what we needed to do. But it was a matter of going out and doing it. Working at home this week and getting better and finally playing a home game is good for us."
Barnes said the Rebels' youth and inexperience showed up a lot in Albuquerque.
"We had some stretches we would play well, and then there were some stretches we didn't play well," he said. "If we want to be a good basketball team, we have to be more consistent over 40 minutes. That takes a while, and we have been working on that this week. We saw three different teams and three different styles. We needed that with such a young team."
The Rebels host Centenary College today at 7 p.m. and then host Louisiana-Monroe Tuesday at 7 p.m. before having a stretch of no games from Nov. 30 until Dec. 10 (at Illinois-Chicago). That's simply the way the schedule worked out, and Barnes said his team will hopefully improve over these next two games before getting more valuable work time on the practice court.
"I probably would have rather had a game in that stretch, but it will really give us a chance to get some work in," said Barnes, in his eighth season as head coach at his alma mater. "Originally we would have had one (Memphis on Dec. 3 but now on Dec. 17), but it is what it is and we'll deal with it."
Tonight's foe, Centenary, returns three lettermen, including two starters, from last year's 3-24 squad that finished ninth in the Mid-Continent Conference. Heading the list of returnees is sophomore guard Tyrone Hamilton, who averaged 12.5 points a season ago. The Gentlemen have split their first two games this season, defeating Texas-Tyler 84-73 and falling at SMU 85-67. A pair of JUCO transfer forwards have led the way at the season's start. Jason Underwood is averaging a team-high 14.0 points per games, while Alexander Starr has produced 12.0 points and 6.0 rebounds.
Rebel sophomore center Dwayne Curtis said he is anxious to get back out on the court for a game since it had been a year and a half since he had played in one. Curtis struggled in the first game, with one point and five fouls in eight minutes against Southern Utah, but in game three against South Carolina State he had 18 points and 12 rebounds.
"I was so excited in the first game, and I was just overly aggressive," said Curtis, who played at Auburn two seasons ago as a freshman. "As the weekend went on, I calmed down. The second game wasn't too good for me, but by the third game I was better. It had been a while since I had played in a game, but I feel good about how I got better each game. Running up and down the court again in a game felt good."
Curtis said he got more confident as the weekend went on, and so did the team. With so many new players on the squad, Curtis said the tourney was good for the Rebels to better understand what it takes to compete at this level.
"You can't take anybody for granted," he said. "Every team comes to play, and we have to also. We worked a lot on our defense this week, and that will help us as time goes on. I feel better about my game, but I know I still have a lot of work to do."
Todd Abernethy said he felt the first three games were a great experience for such an inexperienced team.
"We know we didn't play as well as we are capable," said Abernethy, the Rebels' starting point guard, who had 16 points in the season opener against Southern Utah. "The first couple of games were kind of a wakeup call. On Sunday we came out and played harder and with more confidence. We still have a lot of improving to do, but we're excited to be 2-1 and now playing our first home game."
Abernethy said despite the score of the game against the Lobos, the team gained some valuable experience.
"It was just like a normal away game in the SEC," he said. "There was a big crowd and they were into it. Our younger players know more now that you have to take the fight to a team. It was a big learning thing for all of us."
The Rebel junior said he evaluated his play about like the results for the team.
"I had a good first game, a not so good second game, and a solid third game," he said. "I had too many turnovers this past weekend and I have focused on that. This early in the season it's all about continuing to get better."
Two Rebels are ailing. Freshman center Marquis Young is still hampered with a back problem and likely won't play in the Rebels' next two games. Junior shooting guard Clarence Sanders is still suffering from a jammed thumb on his shooting hand and may not play this weekend as well. Senior Londrick Nolen's knee problem seems to be OK. Nolen had 14 points and seven rebounds in Sunday's win over South Carolina State.
"I would like to be able to play them all to get our rotation down," Barnes said, specifically talking about Sanders and Young since Nolen appears to be much better. "But I'm not going to risk losing any of them for a long period of time just to get them in now. We'll see how they are at gametime and make a decision."
Rebels host Centenary in first home game
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