In almost a month, the Rebels have played only two games inside Tad Smith Coliseum. One was a loss to Arkansas. The other a 23-point comeback win over Alabama.
Head coach Andy Kennedy wanted his team reacquainted with its home gym. Ole Miss has lost some critical matchups there, two in fact, which have contributed to a bubble team in dire need of important league victories with only six regular season games remaining.
Up first is a critical three-game homestand vs. Vanderbilt, Florida and Auburn. While Kennedy won't say it, these games are as close as it gets to must-wins.
Ole Miss' RPI sits at No. 49 nationally, with an overall record of 17-7 (5-5 SEC) leaving little room for error as the regular season draws ever-so-close to an end.
So the recently built, sparkling new basketball facility just down Hill Drive can remain empty for a few more days. The focus for Kennedy, and all involved for that matter, is on a Commodore team currently second in the SEC East.
"I don't like to get into must-win situations, because to me, when I hear must-win, it means if you lose, the season's over," Kennedy said. "I know we have seven games left (including the SEC Tournament). Those seven could lead to more. They're obviously important, because of limited opportunities. Your opportunities are starting to become much more valuable. This is obviously a huge week for us. We all know that."
Vanderbilt, ranked No. 17 nationally, enters Thursday's game with a 19-5 overall record and 8-2 mark in SEC play. The Commodores are coming off back-to-back wins over Tennessee and LSU.
"They're really talented. Going into the season, I honestly believed they were going to be the surprise team in this league," Kennedy said. "Vanderbilt, not many people were mentioning them in the elite. When you look at their team, they've got leadership, they've got size, they've got all of the pieces. They're exactly where I thought they'd be.
"We are what we are"
Kennedy hears the chatter.
Guard Terrico White has suffered through his share of struggles in-conference. He's yet to total 20 points or more in any SEC game, and has produced only two 19-point outings. In total, the Memphis, Tenn. product has managed 14 double-digit performances on the year.
Unlike his debut season, one where he manned the point for Ole Miss and was named SEC Freshman of the Year, White has often disappeared in games. Be it a lack of aggressiveness, limited touches, or emergence of other point producers, White isn't himself.
Some have posed the question of a possible move back to point guard. The thought is such a move would allow more freedom for the sophomore. It would also bump Chris Warren, a 41 percent 3-point shooter, to shooting guard.
"A lot of talk has been about that," Kennedy said, "but the reality is Terrico has the ball in his hands. We chart these things. He has the ball in his hands more than anybody on our team. We'll continue to put the ball in his hands. He's got to do what we know he's capable of doing.
"This deep into the season, we are what we are."
The Shot that Haunts
One minute remained in regulation.
After trailing by as many as 15 points to Mississippi State, Ole Miss had pulled to within five at 65-60. Bulldog guard Barry Stewart dribbled up the floor with the mindset to run clock.
Chris Warren had other ideas.
The junior quickly picked Stewart's pocket. Ole Miss called timeout. For the second time in consecutive games, it appeared the comeback bid was on. This time, though, it was against the in-state rival. And in an all-too-important road contest, no less.
However, not 10 seconds into the Rebels' next offensive possession, Zach Graham tried his luck from beyond the 3-point line. If it goes in, a win is well within sight. If it doesn't ….
Jarvis Varnado, who had guarded Graham during the play, raced down the court. Phil Turner found him for a dunk. With only 35 seconds left, the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.
And in just one shot.
"It's a five-point game and Zach's got Varnado on him," Kennedy said. "Typically, you would think on the perimeter he would have driven him. He didn't even think about driving him. He looked to shoot the shot and missed it. The rest was history. It speaks to a mentality that we have to overcome."
That mentality is to shoot first, and reared its head again Thursday in Starkville.
Ole Miss has had to implement various lineups to adjust to the post absence of freshman forward Reginald Buckner. Not helping matters, the healthy bigs have been in constant foul trouble, too.
One lineup showcases four guards. Kennedy had called the set when Graham came up empty. Going small has its side effects.
"When we go small," said Kennedy, "we've got guys who are primarily jump shooters. Jump shooters shoot jump shots."
And, as witnessed in Humphrey Coliseum, when those jump shooters miss, the glaring weakness of limited post options surfaces.
"I still haven't stopped thinking about that (shot)," Graham said. "There's so many things throughout the game you wish you could have done better, you know? Now I'm just thinking about Vanderbilt."
Buckner on the Mend?
Three weeks and four games have passed, but still no sight of Reggie Buckner.
The freshman suffered a painful high-ankle sprain in the second half at Auburn, and is yet to be cleared for play by team doctors as of Tuesday.
But as practices roll on, Kennedy is more optimistic. Ole Miss is in the midst of a full-week layoff between games, with Buckner given more time to recuperate in time for Vanderbilt.
"My anticipation is he'll be in uniform and we'll put him out there (against Vandy)," said Kennedy. "How effective he'll be remains to be seen. That's been the biggest key to having some time. It gives him more time to heal."
Buckner has been handcuffed by his struggle with lateral movement. Kennedy said he's still "being a little tentative," but that most of "his strength is back." Buckner remains limited in practice.
"It's a confidence issue," Kennedy said. "He's got his strength back and most of the swelling is gone. He's still got some swelling. If you've ever had a severely sprained ankle, that swelling is going to be there throughout the course of the year. Then it just comes down to pain tolerance and how mobile he's able to be."
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