Commodores Battle Ranked Rebels in Oxford

The road remained unkind to the slumping Commodores on Sunday, as the Florida Gators trounced Vanderbilt in Gainesville. Now the ‘Dores will stop in Oxford, where the 24th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels wait to host a clash between struggling top 25 squads. On Wednesday night, the new-look Rebels will look to hand Vanderbilt its fourth straight road loss and send the Commodores to 2-4 in league play.

For the third time in as many SEC games on the road, Vanderbilt resembled an SEC cellar-dweller for the first 15 minutes of Sunday's game.  The Gators used a 23-0 first-half run to put the Commodores in a deep hole early, and though the visitors cut a 28-point deficit to 15 points at halftime, they never crept within single digits.  Shan Foster entered the game as the SEC's leading scorer, but he could only muster a season-low seven points against a relentless Florida defense.  Freshman standout A.J. Ogilvy, battling the flu, suffered similar struggles.  Outmatched by Florida's Marreese Speights, Ogilvy managed to score just nine points, the first time all season he hasn't reached double figures in scoring.  The Commodores' defense was equally ineffective, as all five Gator starters scored at least 11 points.  The game's lone bright spot was freshman Andre Walker, who looked confident and assertive en route to 10 points, six rebounds, and four assists, all career highs.

Ole Miss (15-3, 2-3) has put together a season very similar to Vanderbilt's thus far.  Like the Commodores, the Rebels finished non-conference play undefeated, and like the ‘Dores, they have hit significant speed bumps since then.  Each of the Rebs' three losses came on the road, including a surprising defeat at the hands of Auburn.  Since conference play began, home games have been no picnic for Ole Miss, either.  Last season's SEC Coach of the Year Andy Kennedy saw his squad eke out a three-point victory over lowly LSU and a two-point win over Florida in the team's two games at Tad Smith Coliseum.  Wednesday's winner will take a step toward righting the ship, while the loser will find itself out of the polls and, more importantly, further behind in the SEC race.

Senior center Dwayne Curtis has anchored Mississippi's front line since he arrived as a transfer from Auburn in 2005.  Standing 6-8, the Chicago native has relied on his bulk to bang with taller SEC centers in years past, but he dropped 30 pounds to slim down to 260 in the off-season.  Still strong as an ox, Curtis has added some quickness to go along with a soft touch and a mean set of post moves.  The most underrated post player in the SEC, Curtis can knock down jumpers out to 15 feet, but he's automatic if he catches within four feet of the basket.  He's shot at least 53.8 percent in each season of his college career; this year, his scorching 68.4 percent from the floor leads the conference and ranks fifth in the nation.  His 15.2 points per game are good for second on the team, and he leads the Rebels with 8.7 rebounds per game.  Curtis has logged nine double-doubles already this season, including three in a row heading into Wednesday's game.  Most impressive about the big man, though, is his efficiency.  Not only is he a sure thing close to the basket, but he's also become a pretty good free throw shooter (76.3%).  As a result, Curtis averages 1.73 points per shot, nearly a deuce every time he takes a shot and an incredible number for a guy with so many attempts.

Point guard Chris Warren has come from nowhere to challenge Patrick Patterson, Nick Calathes, and Ogilvy for SEC freshman of the year.  He leads the Rebels with 15.8 points per game, most of the damage coming from the perimeter.  Warren has quickly become one of the league's most prolific three-point shooters.  His 53 triples are good for fourth in the SEC, and though he doesn't shoot them at a great percentage (36.1%), he's a threat to bury four or five in any given game.  The 5-10 Warren may already be the most athletic point guard in the conference.  He's got a cat-quick first step, and despite his smaller stature, he can finish at the rim.  As a distributor, the freshman has been better than expected, averaging a team-best 5.2 assists and posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.9-to-1.  Warren has also been one of the Rebels' best defenders, using his quickness to grab 1.1 steals per contest.

The second in a three-guard starting lineup is 6-5 sophomore Eneil Polynice.  The lanky combo guard is the most versatile player in the Ole Miss backcourt.  Third on the team with 12.7 points and 5.6 rebounds, Polynice also hands out 3.8 assists per game, good for second on the team.  He's not a great perimeter shooter, converting just 30.5 percent of three-pointers, but he'll cause plenty of problems in the mid-range and when he gets into the lane – the sophomore is shooting 46.0 percent from the floor.  Three-point shooting aside, Polynice is about all you could ask for from a swingman.  He can slash to the basket, he's a great passer, and he's the Rebels' best perimeter defender.  The sophomore averages 1.8 steals per game, and he'll go to work against Shan Foster on Wednesday.

With 6-8 senior Kenny Williams starting alongside Curtis, the Rebels have a pair of big, strong post players that could cause problems for the Commodore front line.  Williams grabs 7.8 rebounds per game, second to Curtis among Rebels and good for seventh in the conference.  Though his offensive game is much more limited than Curtis', the lefty also chips in 8.1 points per game.  His scoring numbers have dipped since the end of December, and he's averaging just 6.8 points in SEC games.  Last season, Williams proved to be a difficult match-up for the Commodores, scoring 10 points on four shots in 16 minutes in the only meeting between the teams.

Freshman guard Trevor Gaskins is the Rebels' fifth starter.  With 8.3 points per game, the 6-2 Gaskins isn't the scorer Chris Warren is, but he is a more consistent shooter than his fellow freshman.  His 34 three-pointers are good for second on the team, and his clip of 45.3 percent from three-point range is best among Rebels with at least 10 trifectas.  While Warren relies on his quickness to get past defenders, Gaskins can use the strength on his 205-pound frame to overpower slighter guards.  The freshman has seen inconsistent minutes recently, but he came up huge in the win over Florida, scoring a career-high 19 points against the Gators.

Sophomore transfer David Huertas has been an important scorer for the Rebels in his first year since leaving Florida.  Huertas averages 8.7 points per game, but he's disappointed since the start of SEC season and has gone from a starting job to sixth man as a result.  After scoring in double figures in each of the five games leading up to conference play, Huertas has scored a combined 19 points on 8-of-40 shooting in five SEC games.  Particularly troubling was his scoreless, 0-for-8 performance in the loss to Auburn.  Despite his recent struggles, the 6-5 Huertas is a dangerous perimeter shooter and a solid defender; the Commodores shouldn't sleep on the sophomore.

Senior forward Jermey Parnell has missed three of the past four games with a sprained ankle, allowing freshman Malcolm White more playing time.  The 6-9, 220-pound forward has averaged 6.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in the four games since Parnell's injury.  The most highly touted of the Ole Miss freshmen, White is relentless around the rim and an active defender.  A better athlete than either Curtis or Williams, the freshman gives the Rebels a change of pace in the frontcourt.

Senior guard Brian Smith and freshman swingman Zach Graham give the Rebs some depth.  Smith (1.5 ppg, 1.0 apg), a 5-11 point guard and the son of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, is a steady distributor and a solid outside shooter.  Graham, meanwhile, is a 6-5, 225-pound bruiser.  His minutes have been inconsistent, but given playing time, Graham has shown he can be a difference-maker even as a freshman.  Averaging 5.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, he scored 12 and snatched seven boards against Auburn.

With the influx of athletic guards and a slimmed-down Dwayne Curtis, Andy Kennedy now has the personnel to play at the quick tempo he prefers.  Chris Warren is the perfect point guard for the Rebels' style of play, as he's incredibly quick but also plays under control, rarely looking like a freshman point guard.  As a team, the Rebels are among the nation's best at taking care of the basketball.  They turn it over on just under 17 percent of possessions, putting them in the top 10 nationally as they average just 12.5 turnovers per game.

To make things even more difficult for opponents, the Rebels also lead the SEC in rebounds per game.  They grab 42.3 rebounds per contest and out-rebound opponents by an average of 6.6 boards.  By contrast, Vanderbilt has been virtually even with its opponents in rebounding, and the ‘Dores turn the ball over on about 21 percent of possessions.  While Ole Miss relies on ball control and offensive efficiency, the Commodores wear out opponents with a combination of outside shooting and A.J. Ogilvy inside.

Wednesday night's game has all the makings of a barn-burner.  Ole Miss and Vanderbilt boast two of the top three scoring offenses in the SEC at 84.0 and 83.9 points per game, respectively.  Along with Tennessee, the Rebels and Commodores play at a quicker tempo than any other SEC teams.  Both teams rank in the top 30 nationally in possessions per 40 minutes, and they are two of the top three SEC teams in three-pointers per game.  If the ‘Dores fail to shoot well from the perimeter, the Rebels might add to the list of road blowouts suffered by Vanderbilt.  To get back to .500 in league play and grab that elusive first road win, here are the keys for the Commodores:

  • Watch Warren:  The freshman spark plug has been terrific for the Rebels all season long, and like Devan Downey, he's got the combination of penetrating ability and outside shooting that typically kills the Commodores.  As Tennessee showed, you can allow Warren to rack up points, but make him do it on difficult shots by constantly pressuring him as soon as he gets within 30 feet of the basket.  He's not going to commit a lot of turnovers, but a bad shot can be as good as a turnover.  The freshman has put up his three highest shot totals in the Rebs' three losses; if Vanderbilt can force him into that same must-score mentality, the ‘Dores will be taking attempts away from the Rebels' more efficient scorers, namely Curtis.
  • 1-2 Punch:  The Commodores' stars, Shan Foster and A.J. Ogilvy, not only struggled to score against Florida, they looked flustered throughout the game.  Against a high-scoring team like Ole Miss, Vanderbilt needs at least 35 points from its dynamic duo.  It's up to Foster to set the tone and look for his own shot early, but Ogilvy has struggled against nearly every SEC post player he's faced.  The freshman needs to step up both offensively and defensively against Curtis and Williams.  Before SEC play, Ogilvy was in the habit of getting opposing bigs in foul trouble.  If he can do that in Oxford, the ‘Dores will have a big edge.
  • Ball control:  The Rebels value every possession like it's their last and crash the boards hard on every play.  Vanderbilt must match their frugality and finally stop making careless passes and being weak with the ball.  Ole Miss doesn't force many turnovers, so it's up to the Commodores to execute properly to get good shots, because the Rebels don't give very many second chances.

Prediction:  With both teams struggling, handicapping Wednesday's game isn't an easy task.  If the Commodores' outside shots aren't falling, the Rebels could get an easy win, while the ‘Dores could run away with it if the Ole Miss guards shoot the Rebs out of the game.  Vanderbilt is talented enough to win in Oxford, but until the Commodores show they can execute on the road, they'll be a heavy underdog whenever they're the visitors.  Final score: Ole Miss 86, Vanderbilt 82. Top Stories