Resurgent Rebels face league-leading 'Bama

Resurgent Rebels face league-leading 'Bama

Published Feb. 11, 2011 3:52 p.m. ET

With four straight losses to open Southeastern Conference play, Mississippi dug itself quite the hole in January.

But after a three-game winning streak - including a stunning 71-69 win over then-No. 10 Kentucky on Feb. 1 - the Rebels are on the verge of contending in the Western Division.

Ole Miss (16-8, 4-5 SEC) can pull within two games of league-leading Alabama (15-8, 7-2) when the two teams meet in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday. The Crimson Tide will have a quick turnaround after losing to Vanderbilt 81-77 on Thursday.

Alabama has been the surprise of the SEC so far this year, using suffocating defense to pull out close wins. Ole Miss is exactly the opposite, relying primarily on its fast-paced offense to outscore the other team.


''I certainly hope we pack our jump shot,'' Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.

Lately, the Rebels have done just that, winning their past two games on the road against Arkansas and LSU. The recent success away from Tad Smith Coliseum makes Saturday's challenge a little less daunting.

''People probably underestimate us because of our record or just because of who we are,'' Ole Miss guard Chris Warren said. ''But you know some of the players like to play on the road as opposed to playing at home.''

The Rebels' chances of continued success will likely hinge on the two players who have carried them all season - Warren and Reggie Buckner.

Warren, a 5-foot-10 senior, is averaging 19.1 points per game in SEC play, which ranks second in the league. Kennedy says that his point guard's sense of urgency has been apparent all season.

Warren tied his season-high with 26 points against LSU in a 66-60 win on Wednesday, and is averaging 22.3 points per game during the three-game winning streak. He's scored 1,821 career points and needs just two more to move into third place on the school's all-time list.

''The games are more important to me now,'' Warren said. ''You don't get many of them and it goes by fast. I'm trying to slow it down and live it a little longer. The more games you get the longer the experience.''

Buckner, a 6-8 sophomore, isn't much of a scorer, but can be a monster on the defensive end. He blocked a career-high eight shots in last Saturday's win over Arkansas, and ranks third in the SEC with 3.1 blocks per game.

His main issue has been foul trouble. Kennedy would love to play Buckner more than the 23 minutes per game he's averaging, but he's fouled out six times already this season.

Buckner's ability to change games was evident during the Kentucky win. His monster blocked shot on a Brandon Knight dunk attempt during the second half shifted momentum to the Rebels as they beat a top 10 team for the first time since 2002.

''He makes us a lot better team when he's on the floor,'' Warren said. ''People are afraid to drive into the lane on him.''

Ole Miss is trying to break the longest NCAA Tournament drought in the SEC. The Rebels haven't been to the Big Dance since 2002, despite two near-misses during Kennedy's previous four seasons.

Though the team's at-large hopes are still a longshot, the remaining schedule is manageable. The seven opponents left have a combined 29-35 record in the SEC.

''It's there if we want it,'' Warren said. ''Now we've just go to go get it.''