Preview: Ole Miss

The first marquee test of the season is here as No. 6 West Virginia plays host to No. 15 Mississippi tonight at 7:30 p.m. in a nationally-televised game.

SCOUTING THE REBELS

Ole Miss, coached by former Huggins assistant Andy Kennedy, has perhaps the most balanced scoring in the nation. Four starters average 10-plus points per game with none scoring more than 18. The three-guard, two-forward line-up is netting more than 85 points per game on average. Led by point guard Chris Warren (5-10, 168 lbs.), who averages 18.3 points – half on threes – the Rebels have racked up a solid assist-to-turnover ratio and are distributing the ball well. Warren, a junior, was sidelined for the majority of last season with an ACL tear but has played well in the initial 11 games this year without signs of wear. Warren scored 20 points last year against West Virginia and had Mississippi in position to win until the final second. The Orlando native passes well, shoots 45 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three-point range and ranks in the top eight in school history with 163 threes. This will be a very difficult match-up for Truck Bryant, who could be limited because of a lingering ankle injury. If Bryant doesn't go, Joe Mazzulla's limitations would likely force Da'Sean Butler to the point, while defending Warren would fall on a series of players depending upon if Huggins wanted to use a zone or man look. This is already an individual advantage for Ole Miss, and it could become a major issue if Bryant does not play. The two other guards, Eniel Polynice (6-5, 222 lbs.) and Terrico White (6-5, 213 lbs.) average 10 and 16.6 points per game, so its not as though all the perimeter and drive scoring goes to Warren. Polynice, a junior, mans the swing slot and is the best rebounder of the trio. He has 49 assist to 26 turnovers and has amassed 19 steals. He played in more than 60 career games, starting 42, in two seasons before a knee injury forced him to miss the rest of last season after just one game. He is a seasoned collegiate veteran with savvy and skill and gives Kennedy a leader on the floor. White isn't as much of a scoring threat as the others, but is more willing to step outside for shots than is Polynice. The sophomore isn't shy about shooting, but doesn't have the deep touch of White. He hits 45 percent from the floor, however, which is a higher percentage overall. He's a decent rebounder and defender with a major upside who was the SEC's Freshman of the Year last season. He was voted a Wooden candidate this year.

Forwards Murphy Holloway (6-7, 230 lbs.) and Reginald Buckner (6-8, 233 lbs.) are, as one would imagine, the primary interior threats. Holloway averages 11.8 points and more than seven boards per game. He is making 60 percent of his shots, the majority of which came from within 10 feet. He has excellent body control and finds a player to blockout on the boards. He is very aggressive in getting to rebounds, and has the strength and size to knock non-physical foes off the block. The sophomore is equally good on both ends in the paint, and WVU must be able to match him physically. This is a very solid four-man, and by far the best one West Virginia has played this season. Buckner, a true freshman, is primarily a defensive player and is the lone starter below double figure scoring at five points per game. He grabs 5.2 rebounds per game and has 27 blocked shots this season. He owns the Tennessee high school record for blocked shots, and can change shots in the lane and on the blocks. Like Holloway, Buckner is a purely inside player on both ends. He won't ballhandle unless it's a bounce in the blocks.

The Rebel bench goes three deep. Guard Zach Graham (6-6, 218 lbs.) plays about 23 minutes per game (five more than Buckner) and has started three times this season. The junior is a heady player who doesn't make many mistakes. He started 23 games last year, and was routinely matched against the opposing team's best perimeter player. He could draw Butler on this one, which would be an excellent match-up when WVU is on offense. Graham can shoot it well from anywhere and averages more than 10 points per game. The Mountaineers will need to guard closely here, or risk being burned from beyond the arc. Trevor Gaskins (6-2, 210 lbs.) was al All-SEC Freshman member two years ago. He tore and ACL in preseason practice last year and missed the entire season. The sophomore (he got a medical redshirt) is essentially Warren's back-up in playing style. He could play either the one or two, but his shooting is so poor (27.8 percent) that it is difficult for Kennedy to gain offensive production when he is paired with White. Forward DeAundre Cranston (6-9, 260 lbs.) is the lone senior to see major time. He started 10 times last year, and his shooting has significantly improved from his lone collegiate Division I season (junior college transfer). He averages five points and five rebounds, and chose basketball over a culinary scholarship he had coming out of high school.

OUTLOOK

Ole Miss is a solid team. But like West Virginia, has had varying issues in the early season. The Rebels lost by a dozen to Villanova and barely got by Southern Miss and UTEP. The issue has mainly been defensive, as Mississippi shot well in scoring 91 and 80 points in the wins. Teams have gotten easy shots, especially when Buckner isn't in the game – which on average is more than half the time because of his lack of offense – and Ole Miss has had mental lapses. With a good point guard in Warren and the combination of West Virginia's recent struggles with the press and Bryant's bad ankle, Kennedy is sure to put some pressure on the Mountaineers early to see how they respond. The coaching staff has commented this week that the players will handle the press better, and should score off it at times. The staff also insinuated that some players have adjusted their approach after a close win at Cleveland State in which the team fell apart and wins in which the offensive never truly developed. This one might come down to which team can assert its will. WVU is better defensively than Ole Miss, and it has more depth even with being thin at the point. The Rebels can shoot it well, will match the Mountaineers physically and have an advantage at point guard. If West Virginia can handle the press, run intelligently and make this a forward-oriented game with Butler, Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks, they have a very good chance to win a ninth straight. If the Rebels turn it into a running show, gain turnovers and force WVU, which has settled on offense a lot this season, to bomb away from the outside, to the visitor goes the victory. There's no prediction here – it's too difficult to tell which Mountaineer team will show. Call it even on a neutral court with a slight edge to West Virginia because of location.

BlueGoldNews.com
Game Info
Wed. Dec. 23
7:30 p.m. EST

WVU Coliseum
Records
WVU 8-0, 0-0
UM 10-1, 0-0
Series
WVU 1-0
TV
ESPN2
DirecTV
72, 209
Sirius Channel: 126
RPI
WVU - 7
UM - 23

INJURY REPORT

WVU: Joe Mazzulla (Shoulder) – Probable; Devin Ebanks (Wrist) – Will Play; Casey Mitchell (Knee) – Questionable; Truck Bryant (Ankle) – Questionable.

UM: None Official; Three players reported as recovering from flu-like symptoms.

FAST BREAKS

WVU has won 29 home December games in a row and 34 of its last 36 during the month. It is 47-2 at home against non-conference foes in the last seven years. Name the two losses (answer at end of preview).

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Head coach Bo Huggins is tied with Gene Bartow for 23rd place on the all-time Division I winningest men's basketball coach list. He needs 10 more wins to tie for 22nd.

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Forward Kevin Jones is the only Mountaineer to score in double figures in each of the first eight games. He is averaging 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds. He has posted career highs in points in the last two games.

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Ole Miss is on a six game winning streak. It is 1-0 on the road this year under head coach Andy Kennedy, who was an assistant under Huggins at Cincinnati for four seasons. Kennedy is 71-40 in three-plus seasons in Oxford.

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WVU is 22-27 all-time against teams from the SEC.

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West Virginia is one of eight unbeaten teams in Division I men's basketball.

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Trivia answer: LSU, 71-68 in overtime on Jerry West Day, Nov. 26, 2005; Northeastern, 91-85 on Nov. 29, 2003, coached by Fairmont, W.Va. native Ron Everhart.


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