Well isn't this exciting? For the first time in just over three decades, the Ole Miss Rebels have won the Southeastern Conference's men's basketball tournament championship and, for the first time since 2002, they have earned a spot in the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament and a chance, albeit a slim one, to compete for the basketball national title.
And to think, just a few weeks ago, this very column was calling for Andy Kennedy to be fired after bizarre and once unforgivable losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State. In sports, winning solves everything it seems, including the decades-long frustrations of Rebel basketball fans.
Putting that behind us and looking forward, Ole Miss has a tall task this Friday 11:30 AM Central, as the 12-seed Rebels take on the 5-seed Wisconsin Badgers in the tournament's opening round. Wisconsin is both an experienced and accomplished team, having finished as the runner-up in the Big Ten Tournament this past weekend. The Badgers are 1-1 against the Southeastern Conference this season, having beaten Arkansas before losing to Florida. They have some head scratching losses to Iowa and Purdue, but they also have several impressive wins on the year, including victories over Indiana and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament.
Stylistically, the Bagers cannot be more different than our Roundball Rebs. Whereas Andy Kennedy's teams are known for moving down the court quickly, exploiting athletic mismatches, and taking plenty of shots, Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams have made a name for themselves by using fundamentally sound defense to slow down the game tremendously.
Wisconsin is led by junior guard Ben Brust, who averages 11.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. He, like our own Marshall Henderson, is known for his ability to shoot from beyond the arc. He, unlike our own Marshall Henderson, is not known for taunting Auburn fans, an unusual edition of the landshark fin, and publicly responding to his harshest critics.
Center Jared Berggren is another valuable asset to this Wisconsin team. He too averages just over 11 points per game, and hauls in 6.9 rebounds per contest to boot. He, Sam Dekker, and Mike Bruesewitz combine to form a frontcourt that should be a test for Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway, both on offense and on defense.
This team has the talent, depth, and resume to easily earn the right to be called the favorite in our opening round matchup. Our Rebels will not beat them by playing their style of basketball. They will need to speed up the game tremendously and dictate the pace instead of having it dictated to them. The best way to do this is to be smart with the basketball and shot selection. If this team can limit turnovers and avoid high-risk shots or, at the very least, make most the high-risk shots they do take, they could accomplish this.
Making this feat seem difficult though is that this is something they have struggled with a lot this year, especially early in games against good competition.
Crucial to controlling this game is the now nationally notorious Marshall Henderson. The star shooting guard came up big in the SEC Tournament, winning tournament MVP honors in the process. He has been a crucial component of all of Ole Miss' big wins this year. But one who lives by the sword also dies by it, as demonstrated by his diminished role in the Rebs' two worst losses this year. On the road against South Carolina and Mississippi State, Marshall Henderson went 4-of-17 and 4-of-19 from the floor, respectively. If Wisconsin can force him into making bad shots, or if he simply hits a stroke of bad luck, the Badgers will win easily.
But the last thing any of us can do is to count this team out. I myself fully expected this team to lose to Missouri to open the SEC Tournament, and I know I am not alone in this. I then was not too confident that they would do well against Vanderbilt in round two. After that, it was all but a foregone conclusion in my mind that they would then lose to Florida in the tournament final. So I was wrong, and have been wrong to doubt this team over the past few weeks.
Marshall Henderson, Murphy Holloway, and the rest of this team have exceeded my expectations as of late, and considering that I myself cannot yet expect a first round win in the NCAA tournament against Wisconsin, I would hope that they can continue to prove me wrong tomorrow afternoon.