The No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels travel to Gainesville, FL for a date with No. 4 Florida on Saturday night. Unfortunately for the Rebels and head coach Andy Kennedy, the Florida game simply couldn't come at a worse time.
As the Rebels headed into a January 29 showdown against the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats, Ole Miss basketball was looking brighter than ever. Coach Andy Kennedy's No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels were 17-2 (6-0 SEC)—their best start in program history—and on the fast track to a chance at postseason success.
The dream season of 2013 all came to a screeching halt on January 29, at least in the interim.
In a nationally televised game on ESPN, Rebel fans' excitement was quickly tempered. Despite putting on a 17-0 run in the second half to pull within striking distance of a lead Kentucky held most of the game, the Rebels eventually lost 87-74. Bigger than the lost game though, two key Ole Miss reserves (forward Aaron Jones and guard Nick Williams) were lost to injuries.
Unfortunately for sophomore forward Aaron Jones, the following day tests revealed he had sustained a torn ACL. Prior to his season-ending injury, Jones had been averaging 16.9 minutes per game, 4.1 rebounds per game and 3.5 points per game. The loss of Jones will hurt Ole Miss significantly.
Senior G Nick Williams tweaked a foot that had already caused him trouble earlier in the year. He is now listed as being out indefinitely. It's an injury sure to deal a blow to Ole Miss, as the reserve guard had been coming off the bench to contribute an impressive 24.5 minutes per game and 9.4 points per game.
For an offense that relies heavily upon their Southeastern Conference (SEC) scoring leader G Marshall Henderson (19.3 ppg), significant scoring production from the bench has also been very important. Now minus Jones and Williams, other reserves for the Rebels will have to step up and do so in a hurry. As quickly as Saturday night in Gainesville, the Rebels must begin to see solid bench play facing a Gator club that has simply been dominant.
Additionally, the loss of Jones will mean starting big men F Murphy Holloway and F Reginald Buckner will have to see more minutes. Anyone that follows basketball knows big men in the paint are prone to foul trouble. Consistent foul trouble from either Holloway or Buckner could spell major trouble for a club forced to bring two young players into the mix. Two freshmen big men, F Anthony Perez and F Terry Brutus, will now have to adjust quickly to SEC play as their new roles will begin Saturday against Florida and continue the rest of the season.
Speaking of Florida, through their first seven conference games they have won by 33, 28, 19, 31, 17, 35 and 39 points. At home they play even better against SEC opponents, boasting an average margin of victory of nearly 34 points per game.
Fortunately for Ole Miss, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The boys in red and blue just won't see that light until they are out of Florida and back in Oxford.
The Rebels (RPI: 38, SOS: 118) will have 10 SEC games remaining after playing Florida. Each of their 10 remaining games will come against teams currently not ranked, with the exception of a No. 17 Missouri team that Ole Miss already defeated this year 64-49.
Assuming Ole Miss doesn't pull off the upset at Florida, they will then have a record of 17-4 (6-2 SEC).
If the Rebels can win seven of their final 10 conference games, they would be 24-7 (13-5 SEC) prior to even entering the SEC Basketball Tournament. Historically, the Rebels don't play very well in the conference tournament. Even with a worst-case first-round loss there, finishing the regular season 24-7 (13-5 SEC) should lock Ole Miss with a date to the big dance.
If Ole Miss can find consistent bench production down the stretch, the Rebels are a group still very capable of making postseason runs in March.
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