Rare Rivalry

The first round of the NCAA Tournament opened with a bang Thursday.

Across the country, collective eyes were fixated on a string of upsets throughout the day, including a thrilling, buzzer-beating Murray State win against Vanderbilt.

Fans raced to their recently filled-out brackets to survey the damage. Analysts poured over what had transpired during a memorable opening day.

March Madness was in full swing.

But back home, from the outskirts of Jackson Avenue to the depths of the Square, Oxford sat calmly. Sure, television sets were tuned in to see No. 14 seed Ohio topple No. 3 seed Georgetown, but Ole Miss' own hoops excitement was building.

Outside Tad Smith Coliseum stood an eager crowd patiently waiting for tickets. Message boards, almost in mid-season form, were busy with debate.

Memphis, located just up I-55, was coming to town Friday.

"The whole prize since we started was the NCAA Tournament," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "That's no longer out there. You try to have to refocus as quickly as possible and play the hand you're dealt."

The National Invitation Tournament, while a disappointing postseason destination, can muster its fair share of excitement.

Today Ole Miss, a No. 2 seed, meets a team it rarely plays. Not since 2004 have Ole Miss and Memphis laced up sneakers and taken to the hardwood, in a series that dates back 100 years. Today those programs cross paths at 5:30 p.m. for a game broadcast on ESPN2.

Memphis fans hold bitter feelings toward Ole Miss. To them, it's a rivalry, whether Ole Miss acknowledges it or not.

Sophomore Terrance Henry won't say as much.

"That's what everybody's saying – that it's a rivalry," he said. "We're 45 minutes away from each other. I guess it's a rivalry."

Two current Rebels, guard Terrico White and forward Reginald Buckner, hail from the Bluff City.

White, fresh off a 27-point performance in an 84-65 win over Troy, was recruited by the Tigers out of Craigmont High School. He admitted to being excited about playing against his hometown team, and expects an electric atmosphere.

"It should be packed," White said. "I hope it'll be packed."

Average attendance in FedExForum reaches upwards of 17,000. And considering the rapid rate of tickets sold Thursday, Ole Miss (22-10) may be in for a neutral-court game on its home floor come tipoff.

"I guess, statistically, you have a point," Kennedy said. "(Memphis fans) can make that drive. I know we have a couple of Memphians and our guys understand what Memphis has accomplished. I'd hope they'd be excited about playing them."

Ole Miss has home court advantage throughout the NIT. No. 1 seed Arizona State was ousted in upset fashion by Jacksonville Tuesday.

For the Sun Devils to lose was "ironic," according to Kennedy. Two years ago, after the Rebels were upended by Georgia in the SEC Tournament, they again had to settle for the NIT. After two home wins, they then hit the road to Virginia Tech.

"Our guys broke through on the road, which I thought was appropriate," Kennedy said of the 81-72 win in Blacksburg. "The reason we were in that tournament is because we struggled to break through on the road."

What followed was a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. This season, Ole Miss hopes to do the same, but it will have to carve its path at home where the Rebels dropped four league contests.

"This year's team, the reason we're in this tournament, is because we lost four games in this building," Kennedy said. "I also think it's ironic. For us to have a pleasant memory, for (lone senior) DeAundre Cranston, is for us to protect home floor. We have that opportunity, so we'll see what we can do."

Memphis (24-9) beat St. John's, 73-71, Wednesday on a last-second layup by Wesley Witherspoon. The Tigers average 75.3 points per game and entered the week ranked 10th in the nation in turnover margin and 20th in 3s.

Duke transfer Elliot Williams leads four Tigers averaging double figures with his 18.2 scoring average, to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Witherspoon adds 12.5 points per game.

"I just want our guys to take advantage of their opportunity," said Kennedy. "It's why I'm in this business, man. I want them to take advantage of the opportunity afforded them. I don't want them to have any regrets."


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