January 10, 2008

Lessons learned from UT game

Ole Miss' 85-83 loss on the road in Knoxville to Tennessee showed that the team is not without its weak areas.

Every team has weaknesses, even those that go on to win a conference or national championship, and key for Ole Miss will be to address those weaknesses as the team plays 15 of its next 16 games against SEC opponents before the SEC tournament in early March.

Exactly what are the teams weaknesses?

One glaring area is on defense.

"They spread the floor on you and are hard to guard," head coach Andy Kennedy[db] said of the Tennessee team that he thinks has Final Four ability. "We had a difficult time guarding them."

When Kennedy was first hired, his run and gun offense was a well-known characteristic of his teams, but Kennedy's teams the last two seasons have not exactly been slouches on the defensive end of the court and Kennedy has emphasized defense. Still, teams with great athletic ability as is the case with a Tennessee team picked to win the SEC, are a challenge and will be not only for Ole Miss, but all teams in the SEC.

Perhaps hand in glove when it comes to any defensive problems is the number of players who are seeing action.

Four of five starters played for 30 minutes or more against Tennessee with [db]Dwayne Curtis and Chris Warren seeing 34 minutes each.

Warren's back up, senior Brian Smith saw just five minutes on the floor and there's a noticeable drop off when Smith is in the game because Warren is just so explosive. Smithe was one for three shooting for three points and had a rebound. Warren was seven of 18 shooting and had 24 points.

While Warren is a super star in the making and has been a major catalyst in the Rebels extraordinary season, the true freshman is also prone to some mistakes. He had five of the Rebels' ten turnovers on Wednesday and was credited with just one assist, far below that expected for a playmaking point guard.

Also not helping the Rebels of late has been a couple of players who are slumping, injuries, and foul trouble.

Jeremy Parnell limped off the court after a tremendous blocked shot and saw only seven minutes of playing time and three personal fouls. Junior college transfer Terrence Watson, who was expected to be a defensive specialist with a 7-foot-1 wing span, has been injured. Trevor Gaskins has slumped while shooting the ball for the last several games and David Huertas has done a good job of relaxing more and shooting better after some early season struggles, but went only two of seven against the Volunteers. He is still searching for consistency.

The good news is there's no areas that can't be fixed.

Injuries heal, players break out of slumps, and as a young backcourt will continue to grow and develop. Players like Zach Graham, Malcolm White and Gaskins should continue to improve and be capable of providing relief down the stretch more frequently.

Meanwhile, players like Curtis, who had 15 points and 13 rebounds, Kenny Williams (eight points and 10 rebounds), and Eniel Polynice (20 points and eight rebounds), provide the nucleus that should put the Rebels in a position to play well over the next two months while other players develop.

The Rebels host LSU on Saturday and next Wednesday plays Florida in Oxford before traveling to Auburn on Jan. 19.. After Auburn, the team get a mid-week open date before tripping to Starkville and then closes out the month against Vanderbilt. A 3-3 record, or perhaps even 4-2, would seem like a reasonable goal and represent a good start.

But, after Wednesday game, the Rebels have nothing in which to be ashamed and both coaches said said as much after the game.

"I did not expect Ole Miss to dominate physically as much as they did," Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said. "There is a reason Ole Miss came in here undefeated. They have been on a tremendous run, including starting this season at 13-0."

Pearl also praised Warren as "a great scoring guard" and great talent and called Polynice "may be the most improved player in the SEC."

While Kennedy was disappointed, he drew positives from his team.

"But let me tell you something about this group," Kennedy said. "We have kind of played under the radar for some time, but this group, they are special men. They are not knocked out easily. They kept coming back and coming back, which I think speaks to the make-up of this team. We are disappointed obviously, hoping we can learn something and do better as a group."

That included overcoming an early 6-0 deficit to open the game Wednesday and a 12-point lead by Tennessee midway through the second half.

"I told the group when we were up four with about two minutes to go, they were a little bit stunned," Kennedy said "It was almost like a heavyweight fight. They had punched us hard, and we did not fall, and I thought they got a little bit fatigued. And then it just came down to a stop here and a stop there, making a free-throw. We just were not able to finish the game."

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