I have said all season long that the SEC is a three or four bid league for the NCAA Tournament, but there has been a recent change of events that might prove me wrong. Yesterday LSU knocked off Kentucky and Missouri won a road game at Arkansas. Both of those big wins coupled with the outcome between Tennessee and Ole Miss tonight will mean that three of the bubble teams in the SEC got resume-boosting wins this week. The question now is which team is going to improve their resume tonight: Tennessee or Ole Miss?
Both Tennessee and Ole Miss crack the top 60 in the RPI, 53 and 55 respectively, so the “bubble” tag fits them perfectly; neither is “in” just yet, but only a couple more good wins and no more bad losses should do the trick. The Volunteers have had a slightly disappointing season compared to preseason prognostications; conversely, the Rebels have exceeded expectations after losing Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner from last year’s SEC Championship winning team. On Wednesday night the two teams will meet for their one and only match-up this season, and even though Tennessee is the home team they better be prepared, because Ole Miss came to Knoxville last season and gave the Vols a 92-74 thrashing.
Last season Ole Miss beat the Vols twice, and in both games Marshall Henderson stole the show. I refer to Henderson as Green Light because he is a shooter without a filter, and last season he gave it to the Vols. In the road-win Green Light dropped 32 points on the Vols, and in Oxford he scored 24 of his 28 points in the second-half to lead the Rebels back from a halftime deficit. This season Henderson doesn’t have the two enforcers, Holloway and Buckner, to protect him when he acts up, and Tennessee has their bully, Jeronne Maymon, who didn’t play at all last season. Having Maymon on the court to rough Henderson up a little when he comes in the lane might deter the lightning-rod scorer.
This game will be a game of contrasting styles; the Vols will want to muck it up in the paint with Maymon and Jarnell Stokes while the Rebels would prefer a shootout with Henderson shooting as many bullets as possible. Ole Miss needs this win more as they have six potential losses left on their schedule whereas the Vols only have four more. While losing at home will be a big blow to Tennessee, they won’t have as many land mines to avoid going forward.
To date the Rebels only have two top-100 wins, so boosting their resume is more urgent for them than it is for Tennessee. But the Vols already have seven losses compared to just five for the Rebels. Tennessee does boast the 12th toughest schedule to date so they have that to fall back on, but an eighth loss with a Florida rematch and a game with Missouri would put the Vols in a situation where they couldn’t lose to any team other than those two the rest of the season.
Even with the lack of wins, though, this Ole Miss team should not be overlooked. Over the last 33 SEC games the Rebels are 25-8, which is the best of any SEC during that span — yes, better than Kentucky and Florida. Protecting their home court is important to Tennessee, but it is easier said than done against the Rebels. With Green Light on the court no win is guaranteed and no lead is too big. The Volunteers need to dictate the pace of this game and at least make Henderson work for his points; they can’t let him stand on the perimeter and keep jacking shots until he gets hot. Tennessee has Jordan McRae, Josh Richardson, Derek Reese and D’Montre Edwards they can throw at Henderson to keep him busy.
If Tennessee can get this win that would give them their seventh top-100 win and put them one step closer to nailing down an NCAA Tournament berth. But if the Vols are not careful Henderson could steal the show again and possibly steal that Tourney berth from Tennessee in the long run.