While Vandy has been winning road games, Ole Miss has been losing home games. Last Saturday, the hapless Rebels suffered a 58-54 setback to a struggling Auburn team, sending each team's SEC record to 4-10. The Rebels have lost ten of their last eleven games, including three in a row. At 14-13 overall, Ole Miss will almost certainly be left out of the postseason again this year.
Vanderbilt's postseason destiny is still up in the air, but the bottom line is still the same as it was on February 13th, when I projected that the Dores would need an 8-8 record to be considered a "bubble" team and a 9-7 record to be considered a "lock." Currently standing at 6-8, Vanderbilt needs to win the final two games of the regular season to be on the bubble going into the SEC tournament. Once this is accomplished, it is probable that two SEC tournament wins would be necessary to earn the right to compete in the NCAA tournament. But let's put first things first – a loss to an Ole Miss team would absolutely end any hope that Vanderbilt could have of making the NCAA tournament, short of winning the SEC tournament title.
Ole Miss is not an imposing team, but they have a star player in Dwayne Curtis. Curtis leads the team in scoring, rebounding, FG%, blocks, and steals. However, Curtis has recently faced a family tragedy – the death of his brother. Jarrod Curtis died last Friday after complications stemming from a January 11th car accident in Illinois. Dwayne missed the Rebels' loss to Kentucky in order to be with his family, but returned to lead the Rebels with 18 points and 10 rebounds against Auburn, only one day after his brother's funeral. Our thoughts and prayers are with Curtis and his family.
Ole Miss media relations does not list Curtis as a probable starter against Vanderbilt, but his performance against Auburn indicates that he is still ready and able to make major contributions for the Rebels. Ole Miss' starting lineup is somewhat of an anomaly in the SEC; their probable starters against Vanderbilt do not include a single player who averages double figures in scoring. It also does not include a player averaging over five rebounds per game or three assists per game. The most dangerous threats are guards Todd Abernathy and Bam Doyne. Abernathy is an excellent three-point shooter and respectable passer, and Doyne has scored in double figures 11 times on the season, averaging 9.2 ppg and 4.2 rpg to lead the Rebels' starting lineup in both categories.
Abernathy will likely try to get the ball inside to the three Ole Miss starters in the post, especially as most scouting reports on the Commodores would cite sub-par post defense. Jermey Parnell, a 6'9", 245 pound center, is listed as the probable starter to replace Curtis. Parnell is a hard-nosed player who has averaged 3.0 rpg in very limited playing time this season. He is joined by forwards Londrick Nolen and Trey Hampton. Nolen, a senior from Memphis, is coming off of a 12 point, 9 rebound performance against Auburn. He has struggled from the 3-point arc and the free throw line this season, but is an aggressive rebounder – second only to Curtis in offensive rebounding. Hampton, a freshman, has started nine games on the season and is showing great potential on both ends of the court. Both Hampton and Nolen could be considered wing players in terms of their build – they are similar to Vanderbilt's combination of Derrick Byars and DeMarre Carroll in that respect. Both Rebels are threats to shoot an occasional three-pointer, but will be expected to make contributions in the paint against Vanderbilt.
Ole Miss is not only in the midst of a horrible 10-of-11 losing streak, it is fighting through an intense coaching controversy. Rod Barnes, the current head coach, should be preparing to pack his bags based on the comments of athletic director Pete Boone. "The only thing I really want to say about it is that certainly this has been a disappointing year," said Boone. "But a mind should not be made up until the season is over… you let seasons play themselves out and then you evaluate." Since that quote was first recorded, Ole Miss suffered a humiliating 80-40 loss to Kentucky and a possibly more devastating loss to Auburn.
After the loss to Auburn, Coach Barnes let the frustration out on his players. "I'm not going to get crushed… I may bend, I may lean over, but I'm not going to fall," said Barnes. "We missed some easy shots. We had great opportunities and came up short. Obviously, we're lacking some confidence."
"I don't blame him for getting loud," said Todd Abernathy, "we let this one slip by."
It seems that Vanderbilt has hit an Ole Miss program at its low point. First there was the unfortunate death in the family of the Rebels' star player. Then began the signs that Coach Barnes will be fired at season's end. All the while, Ole Miss lost all but one of their last eleven games. That being said, they are still an SEC basketball program, and they rate in the same ballpark as Georgia Tech in the RPI – that Georgia Tech team was able to defend their home court against the Commodores earlier this season.
So what will Vanderbilt need to accomplish in order to win this game?
(1) Break the Wednesday curse – Vanderbilt has not won on a Wednesday since beating Oregon. Whether it's the difference in the players' routine or just the crushing weight of Vanderbilt's academic intensity bearing down on their shoulders, the ‘Dores have performed much better on the weekends throughout this season.
(2) Succeed from behind the arc – it will be strength against strength as the Commodores' talented three point shooters match up against the Rebels' perimeter defense. Ole Miss is 2nd in the SEC in three-point defense, allowing their opponents just a 32% mark on the year. Vanderbilt's Shan Foster and Derrick Byars each rank in the SEC's top five in three point field goal percentage.
(3) Box out Ole Miss's guards and wing players – players like Foster, Byars, and Alex Gordon must stop the Ole Miss perimeter players from having an impact on the boards. This weak spot for the Commodores seemed to improve against South Carolina. It is especially important against the Rebels, who need their guards and wing players to contribute offensive and defensive rebounds.
Vanderbilt runs the risk of playing not to lose this game, and that must be avoided at all costs. Kevin Stallings knows that he is playing for a chance at the postseason, and that no more slip-ups will be excused by the selection committee. Ole Miss's struggles make them no match for the more talented Commodore team.
Vanderbilt 70, Ole Miss 65
Vanderbilt MVP: Shan Foster
Ole Miss MVP: Todd Abernathy