Bangin' on the boards

It takes only a few active brain cells to figure out the key to Wednesday night's Tennessee-Ole Miss basketball game.

Here's a hint: The Rebels rank No. 1 among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in rebound margin (plus 7.9), while the Vols rank No. 11 (minus 2.5). The Rebels lead the league in offensive rebounds (15.92 per game), while the Vols rank dead last in defensive rebounds (22.0 per game).

Need another clue? The Rebels have two guys ranked among the SEC's top five in rebounding – Dwayne Curtis (8.2) and Kenny Williams (8.0) – while the Vols' top rebounder, Tyler Smith, checks in at No. 19 with 5.5 per game.

Basketball is all about matchups, and this is not a good matchup for Tennessee. Curtis is a 6-8, 262-pound brute who might be the SEC's most physical player. Williams is a 6-8, 240-pounder who isn't afraid to bang on the inside, either. They'll be a handful for Tennessee counterparts Wayne Chism (6-9, 240) and Tyler Smith (6-7, 215), who rely more on finesse than power.

Finesse wasn't enough in last year's game, as Ole Miss' power overpowered Tennessee in an 83-69 romp at Oxford. Curtis recorded 18 points, 9 rebounds and a blocked shot. Williams added 9 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks. Ole Miss finished plus-6 on the boards (40-34) but Tennessee's head coach insists that statistic is deceiving.

"They had 13 offensive rebounds against us," Bruce Pearl said. "They scored 55 points in the second half, shooting 59 percent to win the game. We played very, very hard against them but we were manhandled. We were absolutely manhandled."

Tennessee couldn't match muscle with Ole Miss last year, and now the Vols are without their toughest inside player, 6-7, 233-pound Duke Crews, who is sidelined indefinitely by a heart problem. He'd be useful against a brute like Curtis.

"Curtis is big, strong, built low to the ground," Pearl said, adding that John Chavis, defensive coordinator for the Vol football team, "would love to have him on the defensive line."

Curtis has surprisingly good quickness and shooting touch for such a burly guy. He ranks eighth among SEC players in free-throw shooting at 75.9 percent and has some nice moves around the basket.

"He's quick," Pearl said. "If he gets the ball down on the block and he's got an angle to the glass, forget about it ... it's two points."

Obviously. Curtis ranks second among all SEC players in field-goal percentage at 68.4. Of course, most of his shots are dunks and layups off power moves to the rim.

As Pearl noted: "You can see by the percentage he shoots that he's a very, very, very efficient player."

Though 12-1 and ranked No. 8 nationally, Tennessee has been outrebounded in each of its last five games – 46-31 by UT-Chattanooga, 44-43 by Western Kentucky, 35-34 by UNC-Asheville, 39-26 by Xavier and 41-32 by Gonzaga.

Somehow, the Vols won all five games.

"We've managed to not get physically overwhelmed," Pearl explained. "We've not outrebounded an opponent in five games, but I'm going to give you a theory on that:

"Because we turn people over so much, we create more offensive possessions for ourselves. Therefore, we give the defense more opportunities to rebound the ball. Because we shoot more, they get a chance to rebound more."

Of course, there's a flip side to that coin. Because the Vols shoot more, they also tend to MAKE more shots than their opponents. Naturally, Pearl is willing to give the opponent a few more defensive rebounds in exchange for a few more Vol baskets.

"That's not the problem," the coach said. "The problem is giving teams offensive rebounds. I'm not worried about the rebound margin as much as I'm worried about teams getting double-digit offensive rebounds. We play great defense (on a possession), then we give them second chances. And that's one of the things Ole Miss does (score on second-chance baskets) really well."

If Tennessee gives the Rebels a lot of second chances Wednesday night, the Vols may be dooming themselves to a second loss.

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