Playing in The Pit

The difference between the crowd at Saturday afternoon's Ole Miss game in New Mexico and the one last Saturday at UNO will be night and day. Make that empty seats and full seats.

A date in The Pit awaits the Rebels, their first game since a 78-65 win against New Orleans before maybe 700 people. The announced crowd was just over a thousand, but there weren't that many watching.

Nearly 50 percent of them, it appeared, were Ole Miss fans. Renovated Lakefront Arena seats roughly 9,000 for basketball. The low turnout made for an atmosphere similar to one of those preseason tournaments in Puerto Rico or Daytona Beach where the crowd is not much of a factor either way.

But Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said he and his troops were pleased to get a "road" win no matter the conditions.

"It was out of the friendly confines (of Tad Smith Coliseum)," he said. "But as far as having to play through crowd noise and all that, no, there was none of that. We'll have to deal with those issues for the first time Saturday. But anytime you can win away from home, we take that as a positive step."

The program has had its roughest moments on the road under Kennedy while posting a stellar mark at home. That's not all that unusual for any college basketball program.

This week Kennedy had his team practice with the audio system in Tad Smith Coliseum turned up to a high level with music and crowd noise piped in.

He's also reaching back to last season for some road positives as the Rebels closed out the campaign with road wins at Georgia in the regular season finale and at Virginia Tech in the NIT.

"We've now got three true road wins in a row as a program (adding New Orleans to those two from last year)," Kennedy said. "All three of them were obviously very different in setting and in circumstance. We'll have to play well Saturday, there's no question about that."

In Albuquerque, where 18,000 seats are often filled, the Lobos' home venue has the reputation of being one of American's best basketball environments – or worst if you are the visiting team. The historic arena is about to undergo a $60 million renovation.

The 1983 Men's Final Four was played there. This is the third time Ole Miss has played New Mexico on its home floor since 1996. The Rebels are 0-2 in the previous two games.

The Rebels are 6-2 on the season with setbacks to Utah and West Virginia. Other than those two games, they've been able to take care of business.

New Mexico came to Oxford and lost last season 85-77 in its first year under head coach Steve Alford, the former Iowa head coach who was an All-American point guard at Indiana.

This year the Lobos are 5-4 on the season, their last outing a 57-54 road win against San Diego on Wednesday night.

They are coming off a 24-9 season and an NIT appearance and this year are averaging 73.7 points per game while allowing 64.9 per game. Five players average nine or more points, led by senior forward Tony Danridge at 11.7 ppg and senior guard Chad Toppert at 10.3 ppg. Senior forward Daniel Faris is a presence in the middle with a team-high 20 blocked shots, including a career-high six against San Diego.

New Mexico is 4-1 at home this season. A 72-71 loss to Central Florida on Nov. 22 snapped the Lobos' 33-game non-conference winning streak at The Pit.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, defeated Central Florida 78-46 in Oxford on Nov. 26.

"They're still searching a little bit," said Kennedy of the Lobos. "They lost a first-round draft pick in J.R. Giddens. Tony Dandridge was hurt early and is back. They're playing some young guys and I can tell by the tapes I've seen that Steve's playing 10 guys double-figure minutes. That tells me he's kind of searching, which we all are, to try to find that bext mix."

Kennedy says the Lobos would be a tough task anyway and will certainly be that at home.

"They're very skilled. They're excellent shooters. So we're going to have to make sure we get out on them," he said. "They space the floor very well and can hurt you in a number of ways."

Kennedy said his team continues to grow and mature. For the Rebs to be successful this season, that has to keep happening.

"It's two steps forward, one step back at times," he said. "And I know I've said that before. But we've got to find a way to get more consistent."

The Rebels and Lobos tipoff at 3 p.m. Central, and the game will be shown live on the Versus network.

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