It's a rematch of sorts as the Rebels ended their season last March at Clemson in the NIT. But this is a new year, and neither team has lost in 2007-08.
The Tigers have been impressive for sure, and the Rebels' record is impressive. The most impressive aspect of Ole Miss' 10-0 start has been that – 10-0. And that doesn't mean there aren't other positives within that so-far perfect mark.
The last three head coaches for teams the Rebels have beaten – Winthrop, DePaul, LaSalle – all have expressed the same sentiments, and that's their teams could have won and maybe should have.
LaSalle Coach John Giannini reportedly said after his team fell to Ole Miss 84-77 Friday night in the San Juan Shootout that the Explorers had opportunities to win the game, which they did. That it was the best game his team had played all year, and that his players were excited about facing an unbeaten Ole Miss squad.
Winthrop Coach Randy Peele was almost inconsolable after his team's 76-71 loss to Ole Miss in Jackson. Head in hands to start the postgame press conference, Peele expressed again and again how disappointed he was at the loss and that his team had opportunities to win but didn't finish.
Much of the whole picture of this Rebel season and also this week can be summed up by those coaches' feelings and comments.
But here's the clincher. The Rebels have beaten every opponent they've faced to date by doing whatever it took, especially late, to get a W. They've been able to find a way every time they've tipped it off, and with a team that has as many youngsters as these Rebs, you can't ask for much more than that to this point.
Except that Andy Kennedy is. He's asking for more from his team today as it faces its toughest task yet. Asking for more focus, more intensity, more attention to every detail and every possession.
But there's a chance he won't have to beg and plead for that in this one. Young players get up for ranked teams. They get up for headliner type games, which today is. They get excited when they know they'll be challenged and have an opportunity to turn some heads across the country with a win. The returning players remember Clemson from last year, and they know the effort it will take to win.
The Rebels will also have to play better than in the past three or four games, and they know that as well. Ole Miss played its first six games at Tad Smith Coliseum and was 6-0 as the veterans improved and the young players got their collective feet wet at the college level.
Then they hit the road, first to Orlando, then Jackson, and now San Juan. And they've won four more to move to 10-0.
They've learned a lot about themselves, some of what's happened they knew would happen, and some of it they didn't. With a young backcourt we all knew there'd be ups and downs. We knew a veteran frontcourt would have to help carry them a long way early, and maybe throughout the season. And it has, with Dwayne Curtis leading the way, and Kenny Williams and Jermey Parnell playing big roles as well.
And some nights the veteran big men won't be at their best, like Williams against LaSalle when he became the first Rebel all season to foul out of a contest. And he might just turn around and have his best game of the season today.
AK at first wanted to get the playing time down to seven or eight key players. He continues to play more guys. He's said for the last five or six games that it might just be "who we are" to continue to play a lot of players, some games as many as 10 of them double digit minutes. That seems to have helped this team down the stretch to stay fresh and to find the hot hand or key guys to finish games and win 'em.
It's been quite a 10-game journey so far, one that's gotten the fans interested in hoops even before Christmas. And one that's garnered some attention from the national media for their play and also for their head coach. People know the job Andy Kennedy has done here already, winning 31 of 44 games as the leader of the program.
Besides what should be easy wins vs. Alabama A&M (Jan. 2) and Presbyterian College (Feb. 11) in two non-conference games, today begins a new level of challenges for these Rebels. Clemson and the start of SEC play at Tennessee on Jan. 9 mean things are picking up in a big way as the 07-08 season rolls on.
As interesting as things have been so far this season, it's about to get even moreso starting late this afternoon.
Going about to get tougher for hoops Rebs
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