When Ole Miss and Tennessee kicked off conference play in Rocky Top on Jan. 9, it was hard to have a good feel on either team. Ole Miss was 11-2, but had not played a quality opponent to date. The Volunteers were 8-4 and their offense was anemic for stretches of games. Conference play is when teams show their true colors, which held true that night in Knoxville. Ole Miss won the game going away 92-74, sparking the Rebels to a 4-0 conference start. Tennessee on the other hand, lost 2 of thir next 3, sending them to a 1-3 mark.
Tennessee (9-7, 1-3) broke their four-game skid on Saturday when they defeated Mississippi State 72-57 at home. Jarnell Stokes was one of four Volunteers in double figures, finishing with 18 points. He was also one of two on the team to record 11 rebounds. Trae Golden came off the bench to add 10 points and 9 assists. The Bulldogs were held to just 21-56 from the field and 3-12 from three.
If the Vols are coming in with a spark of momentum, the Rebels are coming in with an inferno. Ole Miss has the longest winning streak in the SEC at seven games and are 8-0 at home this season. Arkansas was the latest victim, with Ole Miss leaving the Tad Smith Coliseum victorious by a final score of 76-64. It was a team effort as five Rebels finished in double-figures in points and two finished with double-digit rebounds. Marshall Henderson scored a game-high 16 points to go along with his 5 rebounds and 5 steals.
Tennessee is 225th nationally in ppg at 65.6 and have yet to top the 74 points they put up against Ole Miss in SEC play. Ole Miss on the other hand is 3rd in the nation with 82.4 ppg and are averaging a shade over 80 ppg in conference.
Each team has a prolific scorer at guard, starting with Jordan McRae for Tennessee. During the four-game losing streak, McRae averaged 24 ppg. In the win against Mississippi State, he managed just 12 points and 4 turnovers.
While Tennessee has McRae, Ole Miss has SEC leading scorer and reigning conference player of the week Marshall Henderson. Averaging 18.9 ppg, Henderson has been everything the Rebels have needed this season. A team that could not hit a three to save their lives last year, is now one of the best. Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner could not get any space last year, now with two men coming over to guard Henderson on the ball screens, they have more room to drive. You can anticipate that he will be the catalyst for the offense Thursday night and will be as emotional as ever.
Ole Miss and UT also have similar players at the forward position. Jarnell Stokes and Holloway are both tall, physical bruisers who have been the belly of the beasts for their team’s paint game. Stokes is averaging 10.8 ppg and 8.5 rpg in the SEC and you can expect him to attempt the match his 15-11 output that he had against Ole Miss earlier this month. Stokes has been very good in conference, but Holloway has been even better. The senior is averaging 16 ppg and 9.8 rpg. Expect a lot of physicality in the paint between these two tonight.
The scorers and the big men will be important in this game, but the point guards might be the most vital. Golden is electric when he needs to be, and with his health improving, he could spell trouble for Ole Miss. His 9 assists against MSU was critical for Tennessee, especially since he had just 2 turnovers. Jarvis Summers has been terrific at controlling the ball on offense when he is on the floor. Before the Arkansas game, his season-high for turnovers was 2.
Ole Miss will look to push their win streak against Tennessee to three and match a school-best of a 5-0 record to begin the season, only accomplished in 1936-37. Tennessee on the other hand will be seeking to avenge their last two losses to the Rebels and will try to continue their momentum in an attempt to salvage their season. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. CT from the Tad Smith Coliseum, and the game can be seen on ESPN2.