After claiming a crucial 85-80 win over Kentucky in late January, No. 5 seeded Ole Miss meets the No. 4 seeded Wildcats for the second time this season in Tampa with the stakes even higher.
A trip to the postseason is on the line, as the Rebels dropped three of their last four games to end the regular season. Kentucky, losers of four-straight, also hopes to keep its streak of 17 consecutive NCAA appearances alive with a win.
"We're excited about being here, and being a part of the great tradition of the SEC Tournament," said Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy. "Who doesn't want to be in Tampa this time of the year? It seems like it's going to be a great venue, and our guys are really excited about the opportunity to play the most storied program in all of college basketball, the University of Kentucky. They present a tremendous challenge. We know that very well having played them earlier in the season."
Kentucky owns an SEC-best record of 110-21 in the SEC Tournament and has won over half (25) of the 49 tournaments ever played. Included in the Cats' tournament record is a 13-0 mark against Ole Miss.
As with every year, head coach Billy Gillispie and the Wildcats are dealing with high expectations in Tampa.
"No one knows what we need to do," Gillispie said. "But we're not worried about things that we can't control. All we're worried about is our next opponent in Ole Miss. And everyone's coming to play for high stakes. As far as pressure, I don't think the players feel it. I don't feel any pressure.
"We know that every single game is a high stakes game in the Southeastern Conference, and that's the way we've always taken them. That's the way we'll continue to take them. If you're lucky enough to advance, you focus on your next time."
Kentucky is 14-1 in first round games, which includes games played before the league split in 1992.
The Rebels, on the other hand, own a 23-45 all-time record in tournament games, along with a 9-20 mark in first round action.
Ole Miss' last first round win came in 2005, with a 53-52 win over South Carolina.
"For me, I have so much respect for the passion, lineage and history of Kentucky," said Kennedy. "When you see Kentucky, it's a special opportunity. We celebrated 100 years of Rebel basketball earlier this season, and not once in our history has a team beaten Kentucky twice in a year. It's never happened. That's shocking."
Thursday's game will be the 108th meeting between the two schools, with the Wildcats holding a 95-12 lead in the series.
However, Ole Miss snapped a nine-game UK winning streak in the lone regular season meeting between the schools.
"They're a very dangerous team," Kennedy said. "If I had to handicap it, I would have to say Kentucky is very capable of putting it together over a four-day period. They have strong interior players, some strong leadership and they've got a guy who's capable of going for 30 on any night. That's a good formula."
The Wildcats are lead by All-SEC First Teamers Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson.
Meeks heads Kentucky offensively, as he ranks fifth nationally in scoring (24.7 ppg). Patterson is eighth in the nation in field goal percentage (61.5) and tied for 31st in rebounding (9.2) on the year.
The Rebels were able to hold Meeks in check in the teams' first meeting, as the junior scored only 21 points in a losing effort.
"We team defended," Kennedy said of the Rebels' defensive performance on Meeks in January. "When you've got a guy like Jodie Meeks, who is arguably the best two-guard in college basketball getting 25 points per game, defending is a team effort. You have to know where he is at all times. We have to team defend, and try to limit his rhythm shots.
"If you allow him to have rhythm jump shots, you're at his mercy. So we'll try to deny him touching the ball as much as possible."
Tipoff is set for 12 p.m. CT and will be broadcast via television on Raycom Sports.
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