Who said college basketball was easy?
It's hard enough that sophomore Malcolm White was pegged as the key cog to replace front court stalwarts Dwayne Curtis, Jermey Parnell and Kenny Williams.
But now with Chris Warren, Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins all out for the year with ACL injuries, White has taken a more prominent role in the locker room almost by default.
"Mac" stands alone as the only big man with any form of post experience from last season's NIT run, which might help explain why the big man continues to search for a steady groove in 2008.
"Malcolm has the most experience of anybody on our front line," said head coach Andy Kennedy. "He's been here a while now and understands the demands of things. He has a better feel of the opportunity that's presented to him.
"He sees that if he does not take the reins and provide leadership, then I don't know where we would get it along our front line."
No pressure, though.
Safe to say, this season has been quite up-and-down for Malcolm. The forward has struggled with consistency throughout the season's early stages, averaging only 5.3 points per game and 4.7 rebounds through 15 games.
Nagging injuries are proving more annoying than serious for White, as an ankle turn against Florida has become the latest cause for concern.
"I'm probably about 80 percent," he said. "I went back and watched the film and it looked like I stepped on Nick Calathes' foot. Coach Kennedy has talked about being tough and playing through injuries. With nagging injuries, you have to play through it.
"Right now, I'm ready to play. I'm still going to give it my all even if I'm not 100 percent."
And so goes Malcolm.
As one of few (relatively) healthy players who contributed last season, he now finds himself spearheading a young Rebel pack rather than running with it.
Leading has become necessity.
"A lot of people look at us and say we're young, but I don't use that as an excuse. We just have to settle down and be more mentally focused," White explained. "We have a lot of freshmen stepping up. Having played in 10 games now, they're starting to get the speed of the game."
Like the rest of his teammates, however, White is growing into his role.
Rebounding has plagued the Rebels this season, but Malcolm and his post mates have shown improvement in that area over the last few weeks.
Against the Gators, Ole Miss used a dominating 46-22 effort to keep the game within striking distance which allowed them to claw back from an early 21-point deficit.
"In practice, we work on rebounding a lot," White said. "We just carried it over into the game and told ourselves we weren't going to be outrebounded. We came out with a lot of fire and energy and attacked the boards."
But White isn't satisfied.
Despite a home loss to Mississippi State, Arkansas heads to Oxford as one of the hottest teams in the conference. The Razorbacks knocked off Oklahoma and Texas earlier in the season and claim an overall record of 12-2.
The motor for Arkansas' offense can be found in budding sophomore Michael Washington, who averages a double-double on the year with 17.8 points per game and 10.6 rebounds.
"I think, obviously, they've been the surprise team of our league," said Kennedy. "For them to get two big wins against Oklahoma and Texas, and then for Mississippi State to go into Arkansas and get a win speaks to the quality of the league. This league, like every year, is going to be a battle from start to finish. Their team has done a good job of figuring out who they are. They've established an identity, and their role definition is pretty defined at this point. Michael Washington is now the guy and is producing."
White is very familiar with Washington as both attended Genesis One Prep School as high schoolers.
"He went to the same prep school I went to and all of us were brought up tough together," White said. "He's going to be a tough matchup. He attacks the boards every time. I'm focused on keeping him off the board. I can challenge his jump shots because I don't think he's a great perimeter shooter."
As you can tell, Mac refuses to be intimidated. While all SEC home games are important, he believes protecting home court has become of greater significance in 2009.
According to White, a 10-point loss in Gainesville makes Wednesday's matchup critical for the Rebels' hopes this season.
"This is a big game for us," said White. "We don't like to lose in this building, so we'll be ready to play. There's a lot more games to be played, but you have to take care of home games. Arkansas is a hot team right now, but Mississippi State came in and beat them. They showed some weaknesses."
But win or lose, Mac believes the Rebels are poised to make a conference run.
"We know we can play with anybody," he closed. "We just have to play together as a team."
Obviously, he's a quick learner.
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