Rebels at the crossroads

The worst fears of the preseason have surfaced, and the 90-78 setback to Auburn at home was the latest low point for an Ole Miss season that appears to be going in a direction few would have predicted just two or three weeks ago.

With the loss, the Rebels are now 17-7 overall and 3-7 in Southeastern Conference play.

A team that started 13-0 hasn't been the same since a two-point loss (85-83) at Tennessee on Jan. 9 in a nationally-hyped matchup of two ranked teams. Some worried about how the Rebels would respond to a loss. Looking back, those concerns were justified.

Yes, they won their next two games at home. But in both instances almost lost them late. Again, looking back, 15-1 had exceeded the expectations many had for this team. But nobody associated with Ole Miss would be willing to give any of the wins back. Things were too much fun at that point.

Six losses in seven conference games later, with a 66-55 victory over Presbyterian squeezed in, the Rebs are reeling.

Backcourt inexperience has emerged and been exposed. That was a major concern coming in, even with the talented Chris Warren, a candidate for SEC Freshman of the Year, at the controls. Andy Kennedy's mentioned that the last two postgames. Things aren't happening as easily for the true freshman as they were earlier.

Front-court experience that doesn't touch the ball and direct the team hasn't been able to lead as it must when those are your older players. While Dwayne Curtis is quiet, Jermey Parnell can be emotional, as can Kenny Williams. But while Parnell nursed a sore ankle, Williams all but disappeared in some games leaving Curtis to handle things down low.

David Huertas has emerged as an adequate two-guard scorer. Zach Graham continues to mature and bring a solid game to the court. But inexperience from time to time is costly for him. Trevor Gaskins has had freshman-itis moments during an up and down season.

Eniel Polynice, one of the team's more experienced players with a season and 24 games now under his belt, has had his ups and his downs. Too many ups and downs, really.

So Parnell misses a few games after the ankle turn at Tennessee, and Malcolm White, an emerging star in the paint, now has a pulled muscle in his side. The Rebels need what he can give them, and White needs the game experience for the future.

So what comes first? The losing and then the frustrations? Or vice versa? Losing always creates frustrations. Maybe in some cases exposes it.

That was a frustrated Ole Miss team on the court today before 9,082 fans. Some of the fans looked dumbfounded about the whole situation. Several hundred sat for several minutes after the game, not actually believing this is the same team that won against the likes of New Mexico, Clemson, and Southern Miss in December and even managed to beat two-time defending national champ Florida and a ranked Vanderbilt team on its homecourt this calendar year.

So many of them just sat and glared into space.

Auburn's 90 points were the most given up to an opponent in Tad Smith in eight years. Not since a loaded LSU team won 97-53 on Feb. 16, 2000 has a visiting team lit up the scoreboard like Auburn did.

Inside, outside, layups, slams, from 3, you name it. They did it. Shot 63 percent each half. On the road. In one of the SEC's toughest venues for a road team. Where Auburn rarely wins.

"At the end of the day, it's about making plays, and they certainly made them when they were presented with them," Kennedy said after 13-10 Auburn won its second game over Ole Miss this season and only its third in SEC play. "We tried a little bit of everything. We went small. They picked and popped us. They drove and scored. Then we went with our conventional, traditional lineup. And we couldn't guard a man there. So we tried zone. We tried to press some. We had no answer."

Kennedy says the buck stops with him. He says it's up to him and the coaching staff to figure things out. He also says he would like for this team, like last year's team did, to take ownership of the squad and push through.

"Mentally we have regressed because of a confidence issue," he said of his players. "I see doubt on their faces."

Williams wasn't quite so diplomatic.

"We're not playing as well as we did before Tennessee," the senior said. "In reality we're a different team. We're not playing defense. We're not even attacking on offense like we did. We have to hold everybody accountable, including myself.

"We're not fighting through and overcoming adversity," he continued. "When adversity comes up, we can't bust through it. These seniors, we're not giving up. We're going to play hard."

More from Kenny.

"Guys are not giving up but they're losing focus," Williams said of the younger players. "They're not really realizing what's going on. They feel like they've got a tomorrow."

SEC West-leading Mississippi State is up next on Wednesday night. Williams said Monday may just be decision day as far as he is concerned.

"I told them in the locker room I need a vote Monday," he said. "We need to decide what we're going to do. If they're giving up, then that lets me know what we as seniors have to do. We only need five players. Auburn beat us with six players."

A team that started so strongly, or at least appeared to in the win-loss column, is no longer approaching a crossroads. The Rebels are clearly in the intersection and there are several ways to go. Kennedy says he isn't certain which way that will be.

"We've got six regular season games left and then the SEC Tournament," Kennedy said. "We'll either keep going in the direction we're going, which is obviously not the one preferred, or we'll find a way to man up and change it."

Too many points on that preseason list of concerns have surfaced game in and game out lately. Unfortunately, after the fast start to this season, it looks like it all just took some time to take hold.

There's still time this season to get it right. But not much.


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