Since taking the sideline in Oxford, Andy Kennedy has faced off against Big East competition eight times, going 2-6 in that time with both wins being over cellar-dweller DePaul. Kennedy will get his ninth crack at his former conference (he was 21-13 in one season as the head coach at Cincinnati) Saturday night as his undefeated Rebels take on the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers.
While Rutgers is not typically grouped in with the rest of the Big East during basketball season, they are still a member of the premiere basketball conference in America, for another season at least. A conference that boasts traditional powerhouses like Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut, and Georgetown, defeating a Big East opponent is always an opportunity for a resume boost.
At 4-1, Rutgers is off to their best start since 2007-08 where they also started off 4-1 before falling to 11-20, missing the conference tournament. With that being said, the record might not be fully indicative of the potential of the ball club. Rutgers’ four wins are against teams with a combined 6-18 record. The lone loss for the Knights was not an impressive one either, falling 66-62 to the St. Peter’s Peacocks in their home opener. The Peacocks were 5-26 last season, 3-3 this season, and are coming off a home loss to Farleigh Dickinson, so take that for what it’s worth.
The Rebels’ start is not against much better competition, with the combined record of their opponents being 11-17 with Arkansas-Little Rock being the lone opponent with a winning record. Despite not playing an impressive slate, Ole Miss does lead the nation in scoring margin, beating opponents by an average of 33.2 ppg. The Rebel success is due in large part to the fact that they also lead the nation in turnover margin at +9.6.
This will be the only major conference opponent for the Scarlet Knights before they reach conference play. Likewise, unless they face off against either Miami (Fl) or Arizona in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, Rutgers will be Ole Miss’s only major conference opponent before conference play. For two teams who have long NCAA Tournament droughts, 10 years for Ole Miss and 21 years for Rutgers, neither appears to be putting forth much of an effort to impress the selection committee come March.
Rutgers is scoring 73.2 ppg this season, good for 96th in the country. While they have scored as many as 88, against 2-4 Sacred Heart, they have been held under 60 points twice this season. They rely on Eli Carter and Myles Mack, a pair sharp-shooting guards, to do the scoring for them. When those two don’t score, the offense turns anemic as no other player on the roster averages more than 7.5 ppg.
Both Carter and Mack are sophomore Paterson, NJ natives who received offers from more prestigious programs such as Uconn for Mack and UCLA for Carter, but chose to stay at home in the Garden State. At 6’2, Carter is the tallest true guard on the roster, and leads the team with 18 ppg this season. He is shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc this season and is just under 96 percent from the free throw line. Mack, at a generously listed 5’9, is second on the team at 14.8 ppg, shooting 45 percent from three. The Knights go as these two go seeing as the two combined for 4-19 shooting in the loss to St. Peter’s earlier this season.
Kennedy’s club is 7th nationally in defending the three-point shot, holding opponents to 22.5 percent from deep. With long guards who can come over and help, it has been a nightmare getting a shot off against the red and blue this season. The Rebels also rank 7th in steals, making it very hard for the opposition to move the ball around up top.
The rebounding for Rutgers has been a problem as they were outrebounded by 10 last game by UNC-Greensboro. The best rebounder on the team is junior Wally Judge who averages 8 rpg. At 6’9, he’s longer than Murphy Holloway, but the added presence of Demarco Cox and the steady defensive prowess that is Reginald Buckner will make it very hard for Judge down low.
If Ole Miss can limit the three-point shot by Rutgers, their chance to win this game is excellent. The rebounding should fall into their laps with the free three advantage going to Rutgers. Kennedy’s club needs to keep the pressure outside and force them to drive, but if the Knight guards get to the charity stripe, they can pile onto a stat sheet in a hurry. A win Saturday afternoon would move the Rebels to 6-0 for the first time since they started 13-0 in 2008-09. Game time is set for 1:00 CT at Tad Smith Coliseum.