Rebels Rising

The Ole Miss men's basketball team will begin the calendar year 2008 where few believed it could be – ranked among the nation's top 20 teams in Division I hoops.

But it's true. After breaking into the polls last week, the Rebels moved up today, from 24 to 18 in the coaches' poll (ESPN/USA Today) and from 22 to 18 in the writers' poll (Associated Press).

The unbeaten Rebels get a chance to move to 13-0 before Southeastern Conference play begins when they host Alabama A&M Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Tad Smith Coliseum. It's not the final non-conference game of the regular season. That's Monday, Feb. 11, against Presbyterian College in Oxford.

But every game is big, and the Rebels want to carry momentum into SEC play, which begins for them at Tennessee on Wednesday, Jan. 9. So they are by no means looking past the Bulldogs from Huntsville, Ala.

Good thing, too. Alabama A&M, only 3-6 on the year, just played an SEC foe off its feet in its last game, losing the contest 67-56 at Auburn but winning the second half 42-34.

The Rebels know the worst thing that can happen is for them to look past the Bulldogs. So they aren't.

"You can't underestimate anybody," said veteran senior center Dwayne Curtis. "Just look at the teams who have lost when they may have underestimated some teams. Kentucky lost to San Diego Saturday. You can't underestimate anybody."

Curtis says the players try to stay focused and challenge themselves every day – with some help from head coach Andy Kennedy.

"Coach helps us out," he said. "He puts things like little messages in our lockers to motivate us and to show us not to slow down or let down and to keep working hard every day."

Junior guard Terrence Watson, in his first year with the program following a junior college career, said he's pleased with the ranking for all the team members, but especially for the ones who have been at Ole Miss for a long time.

"A lot of guys have been here and never been ranked before," he said. "To me, it's good to see everybody else happy. For those guys, it's more important for me to see them happy and ranked than it is for myself."

Kennedy says that for all the players being ranked is new territory. But he feels they've handled it well so far.

"It's exciting for our guys," said Kennedy, now 33-13 at Ole Miss. "But I've said this a number of times. Teams approach you differently when you have that number in front of your name. I know that we do, or at least our kids do. They're very excited. We have to make sure we understand there is an expectation that comes with that, an internal expectation as well. Do we want to be in and out (of the polls), or do we want to solidify ourselves as a team that you're going to see annually in there? That's the goal, and we're trying to make sure we lay that foundation right now."

The Rebels only play one game in a 12-day period, from the Southern Mississippi game last Friday to the Tennessee game a week from Wednesday. Kennedy says this is an important time to get better as a team.

"It allows us to get back to work and improve some areas we've seen exposed through the first 12 games," he said. "We've got so much to work on. I've been doing this for 13 years, and I've got practice plans from those 13 years. I think we've been slow in putting in some things, because we wanted to make sure our foundation was strong. When you deal with a lot of young guys, you have a tendency to want to go too quickly. We had to slow down and make sure they really understand what we're trying to do. Because we're going to be depending on these guys for a number of years."

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