After finishing nonconference play with a 95-68 win over Fordham Friday, the Rebels will take their 11-2 record to Knoxville to begin SEC play. While the Rebels had a fairly consistent early slate, Tennessee (8-4) has had an up-and-down start to the season. The Volunteers are the lone team to defeat Wichita State this season and have played stellar defense. It wasn’t until their 85-80 Friday loss to Memphis that they allowed 80 points in a game.
On the flip side, Tennessee has had a horrible time trying to score the basketball, only scoring 80 twice this season, 80 against Memphis and 83 in a win over Massachusetts. The pitfall of the offensive atrociousness had to have been the back-to-back road losses to Georgetown and Virginia that saw Tennessee combine for just 74 points.
Despite returning the majority of the scorers in Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, and Skyler McBee, the offense has not gotten it going yet. Golden leads the team with 11.8 ppg, down from 13.6 last season. The junior is in the midst of a heavy slump, going 1-16 in his last three games, including 0-7 in his last two. Nursing a sore shoulder, Golden has said that it is hard to raise up to shoot due to the bruising.
Excluding the Memphis game that saw him score 26 points in the loss, it appears as though the team goes as McRae goes. In the win over Wichita State, he was 4-8 from the field and finished with 17 points. In the losses to Oklahoma State, Georgetown, and Virginia, he came up with 7, 7, and 5 points respectively. When Ole Miss eliminated Tennessee in last year’s SEC Tournament, McRae scored 3 points and was 0-8 from the field.
The mustachio man that is Skyler McBee was a whole different story against Ole Miss last year. He was 5-11 from three, including one at the buzzer that sent the game into overtime, along with two in that overtime. He has yet to get much of anything this year, shooting 30.3 percent from deep. Reminiscent of the Rebs’ own Marshall Henderson, only 6 of McBee’s 76 shots this season have come from inside-the-arc.
Ole Miss fans may remember the name Jerrone Maymon. He was an absolute menace against the Rebels last season, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the regular season matchup, and accounting for 11 points and 17 rebounds in the tournament loss. Unfortunately for Tennessee, he will be redshirting this season due to an injured knee. That leaves the Vols with just one playmaker inside in Stokes, the heralded high school phenom.
Stokes is a huge kid at 6’0 and 270 lbs. and has been a consistent rebound for coach Cuonzo Martin. He had a tough time scoring against Ole Miss last year, averaging 7.5 ppg in the two contests, but he was able to come away with 19 rebounds. You have to think of Demarco Cox’s size with Murphy Holloway’s athleticism, so he is a load to stop. It will have to be a joint effort by the Rebel big men to contain Stokes in this one.
Golden has not been able to do much of anything since his shoulder injury it still plagues him which does not bode well for the Volunteers. That leaves McRae and McBee as the guys who will need to get going on the perimeter if Tennessee is to win this game. McRae was 5-12 from three against Memphis, which the Rebels cannot allow to happen. Both players struggle against the zone which works well for Andy Kennedy’s club.
Tennessee shot 31 threes against Ole Miss the last time they met, making 11 of them. They average a little more than 18 attempts per game this season and not many have fallen. The Vols rank 307th nationally at just 29.1 percent.
If the Rebels can avoid giving Tennessee good looks, they have good a chance at getting a big road win. Guard Josh Richardson, who scored 20 points on 8-15 shooting against Memphis has been Tennessee’s most consistent slashing threat. Kennedy’s defense was able to hold him scoreless in both meeting last year, and another strong showing against Richardson will be key.
When it comes to the vital components to a Rebel victory on offense, it is a tale as old as time. Jarvis Summers will need to stay out of foul trouble as he is emerging as a superb floor general when he gets a lot of minutes. Henderson will need to plant his feet and take good shots instead of hoisting up every prayer he can. When defenses play up on the screen lately, he has done a good job of dumping it to the open man and acting as a decoy, that will have to continue. Finally, Holloway and Reginald Buckner need to make a reasonable amount of their free throws.
Ole Miss has never won an SEC opener under Kennedy. They have also yet to reach an NCAA Tournament under the seventh-year coach. If the Rebels are able to beat that first streak tonight, it could go a long way to breaking that latter nagging streak. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. CT from Thompson-Boling Arena.