Tennessee Basketball: Previewing the SEC Opener Against Ole Miss

Mark AlewineContributor IJanuary 5, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 09:  Aaron Jones #34 of the Mississippi Rebels fights for a rebound with Dwight Miller #25 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the quarterfinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at the New Orleans Arena on March 9, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Don’t let the 11-2 record fool you. Ole Miss has benefited from an incredibly soft schedule. The only major conference school that the Rebels have played so far is Rutgers, and their only true test was Middle Tennessee State to whom they lost, 65-62. Their season stats are incredible on paper—sixth nationally in scoring (83.1) and 21st in rebounds (41.2)—but who knows if those numbers will hold up against stiffer competition.

But despite the uncertainty surrounding the Rebels, this team is a matchup nightmare for the Vols. Guard Marshall Henderson leads the team in scoring with 18.2 PPG, but the Rebels thrive on forwards Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, who average nearly 26 points and 18 boards a game as a tandem.

Without Jeronne Maymon, post-play has become Tennessee’s weakness after it was its strength a year ago. Jarnell Stokes is averaging just 11.4 points a game and he’s scored in double figures just three times in seven games (two of which came against Presbyterian and Western Carolina). In wins over Wichita State and Xavier, he had a combined seven shots and earned just two trips to the foul line. Against teams in the SEC, that will not work.

However, Kenny Hall had easily his best game in four years at Tennessee in Friday’s loss to Memphis with 13 points, 11 rebounds and three steals. His performance was encouraging, but his ability to replicate it against Buckner and Holloway would speak volumes about this team’s direction.

Against Ole Miss, though, the game will be won or lost in the backcourt. Jordan McRae went LeBron James-mode against Memphis, and Josh Richardson has stepped up as the Vols' best all-around player. If those two can continue their lights-out scoring (compensating for whatever’s wrong with Trae Golden and Skylar McBee), and if Richardson can shut down Henderson and make the Rebels one dimensional, the Vols should be able to win regardless of what happens under the basket.