Five players on the UTEP roster are from nearby Memphis, Tenn. Add that to the three Rebels from the Bluff City and the game at the Desoto Civic Center has a local flavor indeed.
But Miner head coach Tony Barbee, formerly a University of Memphis assistant, warns his Mid-South players that coming "home" for the 7 p.m. game should be considered nothing less than basketball as usual.
"We're playing close enough to Memphis where their families can come out and see us," Barbee said. "But this is a business trip, not a vacation."
The top three Miner scorers through six games are all Memphians. Randy Culpepper, a 6-foot guard who played at Sheffield High, has started all six games and is currently the team's leading scorer, averaging 18.3 points per game.
Arnett Moultrie is a 6-11 sophomore forward from Raleigh-Egypt High and is the team's second-leading scorer at 13.3 points and is the top rebounder with seven per contest.
Jeremy Williams, a 6-7 junior forward from Hamilton High and Southwest Tennessee Community College, is third on the scoring chart with 12.2 points per outing.
Myron Strong, a 6-2 junior guard from Hamilton High and Southwest Tennessee CC, and Gabriel McCulley, a 6-7 junior forward from Craigmont High, have both seen limited action.
The 20th-ranked Rebels' current Memphis connection consists of Terrico White, Reginald Buckner, and DeAngelo Riley.
White, who has started all nine games, is second on the Rebels' scoring stat sheet at 16.3 points and is a former teammate of McCulley at Craigmont High.
Buckner, from Manassas High, has played in nine games and started four. He's averaging 3.9 points and 5.2 rebounds (second to Murphy Holloway's eight boards per contest). He's also the team leader in blocks with 21, the lone Rebel with double-figure rejections.
Riley, from Kirby High and Southwest Tennessee CC, is averaging nearly eight minutes a game and was a teammate of Williams and Strong in junior college.
In addition, Moultrie and White were teammates on the USA U19 squad that won the gold medal at the FIBA World Championships this past summer in Auckland, New Zealand. That team was named the 2009 USA Basketball Team of the Year on Monday.
UTEP is 5-1 but its season has basically been divided into two parts. Through Dec. 1, the Miners were 5-0. Then came a layoff followed by a loss Sunday at New Mexico State 87-80.
Ole Miss can't afford to start slowly like it did in its last outing, an 83-67 win against McNeese State. In that game the Rebels trailed by 15 points five minutes into the second half before turning things around and claiming victory.
But UM head coach Andy Kennedy was not pleased with how the team had responded to the exam week's schedule.
"It's unacceptable," he said. "We came out lethargic. We averted a disaster by playing about 15 minutes of good basketball. We've got to learn from this and move forward."
Eniel Polynice agreed the Rebels must have a better start right out of the gates.
"We have to come out with the right mindset and approach every team the same way," said the junior guard.
The Rebels and Miners have played in men's basketball only once before and that was in the championship game of the UTEP tourney on Dec. 22, 2001. The Rebs won 68-58, and that season was the last time Ole Miss has reached the NCAA Tournament.
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