December 13, 2007

Ole Miss takes on Winthrop in Jackson

The Ole Miss men’ basketball team won’t be unpacking its bags anytime soon.

The Rebels play the second of six-straight games away from home Thursday night in Jackson, Miss. when the Rebels face Winthrop at 7 at the Mississippi Coliseum.

But this isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill road trip. Starting with the trip to Jackson, the Rebels begin a stretch of five-straight games at neutral sites.

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said he’s hoping to prepare his team for March and the NCAA Tournament �" where every game’s played on a neutral court.

“Playing on neutral sites is important. It counts more toward your RPI,” he said. “And, it puts you in a setting like you’ll see if you’re fortunate to be playing in March.”

And it’s not just where the Rebels are playing, but whom Ole Miss will be facing that will simulate the NCAA Tournament.

Winthrop (5-3) is coming off a 29-win season and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, where the Eagles have played seven times since 1999.

“We could’ve scheduled a lot of different people in Jackson, and we scheduled a formidable opponent in Winthrop,” Kennedy said. “I told our guys, we’re the hunter �" not the hunted.

“Novice basketball fans will look at Winthrop and roll their eyes, but Winthrop has been to seven of the last nine NCAA Tournaments. They have what we want.”

Eniel Polynice said he knows Winthrop won’t be scared of the Rebels. The Eagles already hold a win over Georgia Tech this season.

“They’ve won a lot of games,” Polynice said. “They’re going to come out there to beat us. We’ll have to match their intensity or even play with more.”

Senior guard Michael Jenkins leads the defending Big South Tournament champs with 15.6 points per game. The team’s leading rebounder, senior Taj McCullough, is averaging 14.1 points.

Kennedy said Winthrop is a veteran team who differs stylistically from past Rebel opponents.

“They’re a little more structured,” Kennedy said. “They lost a couple of starters off last year’s team, but they still have three seniors who are key ingredients. They’re the core of their team.”

The Rebels are off to their best start since the 2000-01 season, and senior forward Kenny Williams thinks this team could be even better than that squad �" which advanced to the Sweet 16.

“We just have to stay focused and stick together. If we do that, sky’s the limit,” Williams said. “We’ve got all the tools to win the SEC and go far in the NCAA Tournament.

“We should be a very good team �" the best team ever at Ole Miss.”

After traveling to Jackson, where Ole Miss hasn’t played in 18 years, the Rebels play three games in Puerto Rico before hosting Southern Mississippi in Southaven, Miss.

Kennedy said he’s excited to see how Rebel fans around the state react to his trip to the capital.

“They told me to come to Jackson; so, I’m coming to Jackson,” he said. “I just want the Ole Miss people to come out and support the team if they want to. We’ll see how it goes, and depending on how it’s received, it’ll determine whether we come back.

“This is a trial run.”

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