After getting a taste of how good it can be with back-to-back wins over Michigan and Indiana last week, Wisconsin seems primed to do what it always does: start the NCAA tournament out with a victory. After all, Bo Ryan is 10-1 in NCAA openers at UW despite garnering criticism for his teams' lack of postseason prowess.
But excuse me if I'm not thrilled with the draw. As a reward for an up-and-down regular season and a recent run to the Big Ten title game, the fifth-seeded Badgers (23-11, 12-6 Big Ten) got handed a stick of dynamite in the West Regional. The 12th-seeded Mississippi Rebels (26-8, 12-6 SEC) were NIT-bound until going on a conference tournament tear led by the infamous Marshall Henderson. Though starting point guard Jarvis Summers suffered a concussion in the opening round, Derek Millinghaus and Snoop White filled in to help Ole Miss upset Florida in the SEC championship game. Summers should be ready to play Friday morning, with tip scheduled for 11:40 CDT in Kansas City.
Ole Miss is an odd duck of a team. It likes to play fast, but at the same time is just as good as Wisconsin at avoiding turnovers. The Rebels shooting got better in conference play, but their defense got much worse in a weak SEC that has already seem its two top bubble teams (Kentucky and Tennessee) upset in the NIT's first round. Yet the South is determined to rise again if you listen to Rebel fans.
To get an Ole Miss take on this intriguing 5/12 matchup, we invited The Ghost of Jay Cutler (aka Bob Lynch) from Red Cup Rebellion to answer a few questions.
B5Q: The SEC has taken a lot of flack this season. It is rated below the other five power conferences, the Mountain West, and even has a lower RPI than the A-10. Was the dip in quality from previous years noticeable as you watched the regular season? Is the South just experiencing a down-cycle in talent?
Red Cup Rebellion: I think the SEC did itself a disservice with out of conference scheduling this year. Few SEC teams played against great out of conference competition, and those who did schedule tougher non-SEC teams did not really impress during those games (such as Alabama against VCU). Because of this, the SEC earned an early reputation as a weak power conference this season and was not able to improve upon that with underwhelming and inconsistent conference play. I do agree that the SEC is probably the worst power conference talent wise this year, but I also don't think it's as bad as the conference's detractors want it to be.
Basically, the way SEC fans feel about the B1G in football, well that's sort of what everyone else is doing regarding the SEC in basketball. We're not bad, we're just not particularly great, and we're in a bit of a slump.
Why that is though I cannot be sure. There are likely a myriad of factors at play. I would argue that the South is definitely not experiencing a down-cycle in talent. My evidence for this claim is Deadspin's story from Tuesday which demonstrates that Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana are some of the most basketball talent rich states in the country. In looking at the Rivals.com Top 150 for 2013, you'll see a lot of guys from Texas, Florida, and Tennessee, with a smaller but not insignificant number of recruits from Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and so forth. A lot of these talents wind up at Kentucky (which doesn't at all explain their struggles this year, something which I'm still trying to comprehend) or Florida, with several others opting to sign with non-SEC basketball powers like Duke, Memphis, Kansas, and so forth.
(Ed. note: I've noticed this same thing myself. Year after year there is an ungodly amount of highly-rated hoops talent coming out of the South. How is the SEC not a top conference every year?! I've hypothesized that evaluators are biased toward the athleticism in these recruits, ignoring whether their actually good at basketball. But I digress...)
So the real question is then why are a lot of players from the Southeast not playing in the Southeastern Conference? I think the image of the conference as a collection of football programs plus Kentucky has a lot to do with it, as does the significant coaching turnover we've seen in the conference as of late.
B5Q: Mississippi plays at a very contrasting style compared to Wisconsin. The Rebels push one of the fastest tempos in the country, running the quickest pace of any SEC team during conference play. Wisconsin is 1-1 against the SEC this season, having beaten a similarly fast-paced Arkansas team early in the year (but falling to a "slow" Florida team). How successful do you think Andy Kennedy's crew can be at speeding up the famously methodical Badgers?
RCR: I think this team can be successful in speeding up the game if they're smart with the basketball and their shot selection. Basically if this team can limit turnovers and avoid high-risk shots they'll have more control over the game's pace. That is something they have struggled with a lot this year though, especially early on against good competition, so I wouldn't count on that taking place.
B5Q: Certainly Ole Miss wouldn't be where it is today without Marshall Henderson. He is also one of college basketball's greatest villains ever, a splendid combination of J.J. Redick and Ron Artest. He also sports a fantastic nickname: "The Landshark." How do you describe the Marshall Henderson phenomenon and how much it means to the program? Where do you see Henderson being in five years? NBA? Professional wrestling? Prison?
RCR: We love Marshall Henderson, but we also fully realize that few others do and completely understand why that is. Frankly, I think we Ole Miss fans are just happy to have the attention. This is easily the most press our basketball team has gotten since the Bryce Drew buzzer beater in 1998.
Regarding his future, I think of the options you've provided, pro wrestling is where I would hope he ends up. He's such a perfect heel.
B5Q: Besides being crazy, Henderson is also very good. He is the SEC's leading scorer (20.1 ppg) and has made more 3-pointers (131) than all but one other player in Division I. Is the key to beating Ole Miss as simple as forcing Henderson into a bad night?
RCR: In short, yes. In our two worst losses this year, which came on the road against South Carolina and Mississippi State, Henderson went 4-of-17 and 4-of-19 from the floor, respectively.
B5Q: With Henderson capturing more attention than perhaps any other single player this tournament, his teammates are going to fly under the radar. Describe who the most important supporting pieces have been for the Rebels this season that might play a big role on Friday.
RCR: You're right in that Henderson gets all the attention, but most Ole Miss fans would call forward Murphy Holloway this team's MVP. He is just a hair away from averaging a double-double with 14.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. His rebounds mark is good for first in the SEC, to boot. Reginald Buckner is also a major contributor to this team's success, but primarily on defense where he averages 2.7 blocks per game, a mark which is also best in the SEC.
And, in typing this, it just how hit me that Ole Miss can boast the SEC's top scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker. That's probably never happened before.
B5Q: Ole Miss ran its record to 17-2 in late January and rose to as high as No. 16 in the AP poll until injuries decimated its rotation. Big man Aaron Jones suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the ensuing loss to Kentucky. Center Demarco Cox was lost for the year as well, and senior guard Nick Williams also missed time. Can you explain the impact these injuries had on the team's momentum?
RCR: Losing Jones, Cox, Williams, and (for a short while) Anthony Perez absolutely decimated our depth and rotation, especially up front. Their injuries meant that, for several games, a 6'6" freshman forward named Terry Brutus had to spell Buckner or Holloway or fill in for them during foul trouble. Brutus is, at best, a guy who can come off of the bench and eat up minutes as a wing. Counting him to defend and rebound down low is just asking too much out of him. It just has been a bad situation all around since those injuries, especially Jones'. Aaron Jones is easily the most athletic of the injured big men and proved himself to be an adept defender and rebounder off of the bench, so missing him really hurt a lot.
B5Q: Has there been any common thread between the Rebels' losses this season? They have been beaten by some pretty bad teams, like Indiana State, Mississippi State and South Carolina.
RCR: As mentioned earlier, Henderson really struggled in those games. On top of that, we were not able to create offense elsewhere, especially outside of the paint or coming off of the bench. We just looked and played really, really one dimensionally in those losses, with that one dimension being ineffective.
B5Q: Prior to its run to the SEC tourney championship, Ole Miss was 16-1 at home and 7-7 elsewhere. Though it may have exorcised some neutral court demons, there does seem to be a disconnect in Mississippi's comfort level at home versus being on the road. The Rebels play in the smallest arena (9,061 capacity) in the SEC, C.M. Tad Smith Coliseum, and will play Wisconsin in Kansas City's Sprint Center, which holds 18,972 fans. Is this team comfortable away from Oxford and how much will the three-game run last weekend aid Ole Miss in its preparation for the NCAAs?
RCR: The "affectionately" named Tad Pad is, in spite of it's slated demolition, a good home court for our program. It's cozy, sure, but its construction renders it one of the SEC's more intimidating venues. When Rebel fans are excited about the program, the place quickly sells out and fills up, and can be very raucous. The team, therefore, plays very well at home and, until this past weekend, really struggles away from it. Considering how well they played in Nashville, maybe I can now say that this team is ready to shine way from Tad Smith Coliseum, but I will hold off on that until I see it this Friday.
B5Q: I am convinced that Henderson and Wisconsin's Mike Bruesewitz are already acquainted through some secret society for hype men. But Bruesewitz's game probably doesn't scare the Rebels all that much. Which Badger player or matchup are you most worried about in this 5-12 game?
RCR: Easily Ben Brust matching up against anyone in our back court, because we do not defend the perimeter particularly well. If he plays particularly well, then we should have a tough time answering offensively.
B5Q: If you dare, make a prediction on Friday's outcome.
RCR: I'll say this: I fully expected this team to lose to Mizzou to open the SEC Tournament. I then wasn't too confident that they'd do well against Vanderbilt, even though I was pleased to play them instead of Kentucky. After that, it was a foregone conclusion in my mind that they'd lose to Florida in the tournament final. So this team has exceeded my expectations as of late and, in keeping with that, I'll continue to maintain said low expectations. The Rebels will have a tough go on offense early against Wisconsin, and it will be a slow, agonizing defeat in Kansas City. I'll say something to the tune of 55-66 in favor of the Badgers.
Our thanks to Bob for being a good Southern gentleman and playing along with this NCAA Tournament grilling. You can find more Rebel wisdom on Twitter @RedCupRebellion.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||C||Reginald Buckner, Sr.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Murphy Holloway, Sr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F / G||Nick Williams, Sr.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Marshall Henderson, Jr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Jarvis Summers, So.|
KenPom win probability: 71% (68-62 W) 66 possessions
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