Rebs normally find going rough on Rocky Top

Ole Miss hasn't won in Knoxville since Coach Ed Murphy's Rebels beat UT 93-88 on Feb. 27, 1991. Since then the Vols have won seven straight against UM at Thompson-Boling Arena.

After the Ole Miss men's basketball team started its Southeastern Conference season 3-0, I looked at the next five games on the schedule, which would complete the first half of the league season.

I felt then, and do now after four straight losses, that the Tennessee game would be the toughest to win. So unless the Rebels pull an almost miracle upset of the 13th-ranked Volunteers in Knoxville before more than 20,000 fans, that's five losses in a row.

But there's hope. Even after what I am afraid will be a fifth-straight loss for the Rebels to fall to 13-8 overall and 3-5 in the SEC, there are some more winnable games on the horizon, starting at Auburn Wednesday night.

The Rebels and the Tigers from the plains actually play twice in the regular season's final eight games - once there and once here. The Rebels also host Alabama (already beaten the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa), Vanderbilt and Arkansas. On the road, besides Auburn, a game at MSU is winnable, probably moreso than the ones in Lexington and Baton Rouge.

So let's say the Rebs are 3-5 but then go 4-4 the rest of the way. That's the 7-9 SEC mark I had in my mind for them all along, especially before the 3-0 SEC start - with a 17-12 regular season record heading into the SEC tourney in Nashville and an NIT bid already in the bag.

Great after a 3-0 start? No. Done deal that they'll win as many as four more before SEC tourney time? No again. But it's clearly possible.

At 13-3 overall and 3-0 in the SEC, few would be happy with a 7-9 SEC mark and a 17-12 overall record. I'll admit that it would be a bit disappointing.

Even Chuck and I talked at the office here that at 3-0, the Rebs had given themselves a chance to go 8-8 or perhaps even better.

But let's don't count all this up just yet. Yes, I do believe the Vols will be one of the most difficult remaining games on the schedule to win. Ole Miss doesn't normally play as well in Knoxville as some other places, although they have sneaked out of there with a win or two over the years. But they've been few and far between.

I remember attending a game in Knoxville in 1998 when the Rebels were on a roll and ranked 11th in the country. Ole Miss was 12-1 overall and had started that SEC season 3-0. Tennessee waxed maybe the best UM men's hoops team in history pretty good that day in Thompson-Boling Arena to the tune of 77-67.

The Rebels still went on to win the SEC West for a second straight season and appeared on their way to making some bigtime noise in the NCAA tourney - until getting "Valpoed" in the first round of the NCAA tourney in Okie City.

First-year Coach Bruce Pearl has breathed new life into a Tennessee program that had bascially floundered for years since Coach Don DeVoe was let go after the 1988-89 season.

Since then, Wade Houston, Kevin O'Neill, Jerry Green, and Buzz Peterson all tried to lift the Vol program out of some of the many shadows that Pat Head Summitt's women's program had cast on it for years. Pearl has been able to do what those others couldn't - at least so far.

The Vols are 15-3 overall and 6-1 in the SEC East. Their headline game came two weeks ago when they upset then-No. 2 ranked Florida 80-76 in Knoxville.

Rod Barnes says his Rebels are still confident, and that he hasn't sensed any less of that than he did when they were 3-0 a few weeks ago. No matter what happens at Tennessee, they'll need to keep that confidence and focus and direction to have a chance to pull off any postseason play at this point.

I don't normally like to write an opinion of wins and losses before they happen, and in this case some of them well before they happen. In some way we're supposed to believe the Rebels will win them all, or just not make a prediction.

But I stand by the fact that when they started out of the gates 3-0, the one I looked at over the next five toward the halfway point of the season and said, "that's gonna be the toughest of them all" was Tennessee.

Perhaps the Rebels will play their best yet and pull it off. If they don't, they have to realize half the SEC season remains, and they have a shot at getting more wins in league play the second half of the season than in the first half.

Now watch 'em go upset the Vols. Here's hoping.

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Tipoff is 2 p.m. CT, that's 3 p.m. in Knoxville. The game is a Jefferson-Pilot TV broadcast.

Game notes by Kyle Campbell from Ole Miss athletics media relations are found on the Spirit's message board.

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