Rebels look to continue winning ways tonight

Ole Miss hosts LSU tonight in men's basketball in Oxford at 7 p.m.

You can hear the buzz, feel the fever, everywhere you go.

"I heard a girl say in class last week," an Ole Miss student said to me recently, "that her boyfriend wanted to know where she wanted to spend Valentine's. She told him at the basketball game."

I had a similar experience Tuesday night. A lady behind the counter at a local business was talking to another person behind the counter. As I approached, their conversation went like this.

"Guess where I'm spending Valentine's?" she asked her co-worker. "At the Ole Miss-LSU basketball game."

And it wasn't like she was unhappy about it. Sounded like that's where she wanted to be.

"I know students who are seniors who had never been to a basketball game until this year," yet another Ole Miss student told me a week or so ago. "Now they won't miss one."

If the fans are excited about the happenings inside Tad Smith Coliseum this season, and they appear to be in record numbers, so are the players. They love playing there.

But tonight when LSU comes to town, the Rebels may be even looking forward to it more than usual.

The reasons? There are many. One is obviously that the fans are interested in the program again. What last year and the year before was mostly a half-filled C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum for SEC games will be mostly full tonight.

I say mostly because there are still several hundred tickets available as of this morning. Of course, if Saturday's record crowd of 9,452 is any indication, then 9,000-plus is again quite probable for tonight since so many fans bought tickets on gameday for the 75-69 win over Alabama.

If it's not full tonight, that's mostly an indication that season ticket sales are down. When fans buy large numbers of season tickets, the crowds are always bigger throughout the season. Because when fans have tickets in hand, they are more likely to attend, no matter the circumstances, the weather, or if the game's on TV.

Or even if it's Valentine's Day night.

That being said, with three home games left and with a virtual lock already on some type of postseason activity, the season ticket numbers for Ole Miss men's basketball are sure to rise next season.

Todd Abernethy won't be here to reap the rewards of the success the Rebels have had this winning season, the first in his four years here. But he will enjoy the last few times he steps onto the Tad Smith Coliseum court for games and know that in the future he and his teammates and coaches worked as one to bring the fans and the fun back to Rebel hoops.

Abernethy hears that talk and feels that enthusiasm when he walks across campus going to classes each day.

"People are excited about basketball here, and it feels really good," he said. "But we don't let that go to our heads. There's work to be done. We just go out and play and let the rest take care of itself."

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy agrees that his team has kept its head on straight and looks only to its next game.

"Our guys have been pretty focused," he said. "We've had good practices this week. They seem to be zeroed in pretty good."

Kennedy said the Rebels, 16-8 overall and 5-5 in the SEC and tied for first place in the SEC West, are still working to gain respect and to get where they want to be at the end of the season.

"We're still barely a blip on the radar," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do. We're still very much in an underdog role."

But Kennedy also agrees that the fans buying in so early in his tenure and with his first team is very important to whatever success the Rebels can have the rest of the way with Georgia here next Wednesday night and Auburn here in the regular season finale on Saturday, March 3.

You get different answers as to when the turnaround began for this team. Likely you could trace it back to last March when Kennedy was hired, and then through offseason and preseason workouts.

It appears the Rebels did something that's a bit unusual in sports. They gained confidence while losing three games on the road. Single-digit setbacks at LSU, Florida, and Vanderbilt showed them they could compete with anybody. Remember, this team has several players who were a part of a 40-point loss at Kentucky and a 29-point loss at Mississippi State late last season. That they have competed on the road in this league against quality competition gave them a boost when they've played at home.

"From the second half of the Tennessee game when we came back from 10 points down at halftime and played as good a 20 minutes as we have all year to win that game," is when Kennedy says the biggest turnaround may have come for the Rebels. "Then through the State game and then beating an Alabama team where I never sensed anything from our guys by the look in their eyes that we'd do anything but win that game. And they came through."

And then there are the celebrations. Even in non-conference play, the team went around the court high-fiving those few in attendance and thanked them for their support. It takes them a little longer to do that now with more hands raised for the slapping.

Heck, Kenny Williams even did the Lambeau Leap, Green Bay style, into awaiting students' arms last Saturday after the victory. Climbed the wall and rail to hug and thank some of those he had seen there all season supporting him and his teammates.

"In that student section, you used to see the empty seats, and you could tell more who was there in earlier games," he said. "Now you can't see anything but people. It's full and the crowd is into it. The section I went in, they really do a lot of cheering and talk to me in the (pregame) shoot-around. I wanted to go in there and show them my support and thank them."

Kennedy says LSU presents yet another difficult challenge for his ballclub. The word is that LSU's marquee player, Glen Davis, may not be 100 percent for tonight's game due to injury. Kennedy and his team have prepared as though Big Baby will still be at his best.

"They're like the rest of us. They're a bounce here or there from being two or three games from where they are, " he said of one of last year's Final Four participants who has fallen on harder times this time around at 14-10 overall and 3-7 in SEC play. The Tigers beat Arkansas in Baton Rouge 71-67 in their last game.

"They have one of the most difficult guys in the country to match up with in Big Baby," Kennedy continued. "They present a lot of matchup problems from a size standpoint."

LSU head coach John Brady says he hopes his team can continue to build on its win over the Hogs.

"It was good to finally win a close game," he said. "Any significant season is the ability of your team to win close games. It was good to be able to do that and hopefully we'll continue to do that."

He also knows Ole Miss is a better team than when his Tigers beat the Rebels 62-55 in Baton Rouge on Jan. 17.

"We've got to play our best at Ole Miss. They're the most improved team in the league and Andy's done a great job with them," Brady said. "They have more confidence now. They've won some games here of late and anytime you have a belief system that you're doing well, it'll translate into better play."

And, in the case of Ole Miss this season, big, loud crowds when the Rebels play at home in Oxford.

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