Only The First One

It's only one game on the schedule, but it doesn't feel like it. Today's 12:30 p.m. Ole Miss-Mississippi State men's basketball contest in Oxford seems much larger than just 1/16th of the SEC season.

Throw in that it's at home, that it's the conference opener, and that it's the arch rival, and there you have it. Yes, it's only one. But it's a big one.

Still the 14th-ranked Rebels and their coach say they must keep it in its proper perspective, which means there are 15 other league games after this one, win it or lose it.

"I've said this before, and fans probably don't like to hear it, but as a coach and even as players, we do not have the luxury of having a rival," said fourth-year UM head coach Andy Kennedy, a native Mississippian. "All these games count 1/16th. The importance is that it's the opener of the SEC and it's at home. So our approach will be the same. We don't have the luxury of getting up just for this big game, because there's another one coming in three days."

Kennedy said the 12-2 Rebels, coming off an 84-56 win at home against Central Florida Tuesday night, have to view it as such and willingly take that approach.

"For us it's about a focus and a steady, persistent pursuit," he said. "It just so happens it's the SEC opener and it's at home, so that's where the pressure comes in to protect home floor, regardless of the opponent."

The "opponent" today is another solid Mississippi State squad that's 12-3 on the season and was predicted, along with the Rebels, to be at the top of the SEC Western Division.

"They're similar to what they were last year," Kennedy said. "It starts with (Jarvis) Varnado, because defensively he changes the game. He's gotten so much better offensively, and they do a very good job of spacing around him."

Despite the inside presence, MSU's offense, like the Rebels, is guard-oriented.

"Most of the time they have four guys on the floor that can extend you to the 3-point line," Kennedy said. "So we have to make sure we adjust to that. Defensively they're always solid. We have to gameplan in order to counteract all that."

MSU had won nine games in a row before stumbling at Western Kentucky Monday night in its last outing. The Bulldogs fell 55-52, and it was an uncharacteristically bad night shooting that seemed to do them in.

State shot 36 percent from the floor, missing 30 of its 47 shots. From beyond the arc, one of the nation's best 3-point shooting teams was only 4-of-19, and at the free throw line made only 14-of-27.

Statistics like that normally get even a good team beaten on the road. At a tough place to play against a solid team like the Hilltoppers, it cost State a victory.

Ole Miss, meanwhile, is also reliant on the trey, since the Rebs' inside game continues to take some time to grow. Kennedy is fine with that, as long as it works.

"It depends on your personnel. It's what our guys do," he said of the outside shooting. "If I was dependent on Murphy Holloway and DeAngelo Riley making them, that would make me a little uncomfortable. But this is what our guys do. And it's what (MSU's) guys do.

"We'll both try to play to the identity of our players. Chris Warren is a very effective shooter. Terrico White is shooting the ball extremely well. Zach Graham has been in a great rhythm. If we could get Trevor Gaskins up to the pace that we've all seen before, then we would have a few more options."

While there are highs and lows for a team that relies on the 3-pointer so much, Kennedy said it simply comes with the territory.

"That's really basketball. It's the ultimate game of runs," he said. "With that shot clock, there is no sitting on the ball. You have to keep playing. A 20-point game can turn into a four-point game either way in our sport very quickly. That's why in basketball it's paramount to get to the next play. You have to keep moving to the next play. Sometimes that's easier said than done."

Inside, the Rebels continue to grow up. But are they ready to face one of the nation's best centers in shot-block expert Varnado, the 6-9, 230-pound, Brownsville, Tenn., native?

Reginald Buckner will face his toughest challenge to date when he's in the contest. The Memphian is the Rebels' leading shot-blocker with 32 swats on the year.

"Physically he's truly gotten much, much better," said Kennedy of the 6-foot-8, 233-pound first-year Rebel. "It's like with every freshman, there's the mental see-saw of being prepared each and every day – for practice, for the games, for scouting, making sure he's locked in if there are adjustments to be made to the way we're playing. Those are things every freshman has to go through. But he's improved to a point to where we feel very comfortable in him playing an active role in Saturday's game."

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