January 17, 2008

Rebels ready to tame the Tigers

When Ole Miss heads to the road this weekend, they're going to be seeing a familiar sight.

Sure, the jerseys will be different. The faces won't be the same. The court and the arena will also be totally different.

But like so many times this year, the Rebels will be taking on a team without a true post presence. This time, Auburn will be going small when the Tigers host No. 15 Ole Miss at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said injuries have forced Auburn and head coach Jeff Lebo into playing small. The Tigers start four guards and forward Quan Prowell.

Prowell, a 6-foot-8 and 215-pound senior, is more comfortable facing the basket. He's one of seven scholarship players available for the Tigers (10-5, 1-2 SEC).

"They've obviously been affected by injuries and it's cut into their depth," Kennedy said. "They're playing really small. That's just what they do. It's the hand they've been dealt."

Prowell leads Auburn with 13.8 points per game.

An injury to Korvotney Barber has limited Auburn's ability inside, and that's good news for the Rebel offense.

Led by senior Dwayne Curtis, Ole Miss (15-1, 2-1) should be able to assert its will in the post.

Curtis, who began his career at Auburn before transferring, said he knows it'll be a hostile environment.

"I'm ready to go," he said. "I know they'll be against me. The last time, they had a few names for me."

Curtis, who is nursing a strained arch, will be fine come game time. Jermey Parnell is also expected to play.

But while Auburn's size deficiencies inside should have the Rebel post players licking their chops, it does present some problems.

"We've seen a bunch of it. I think it's give and take," Kennedy said. "Offensively, they'll have a hard time with our size along the frontline.

"But defensively, we'd be foolish to think it wasn't a matchup problem for our bigs away from the baskets."

Ole Miss has faced this same dilemma in all three SEC games to this point.

Against Tennessee and LSU, Tyler Smith (21 points) and Anthony Randolph (18 points) were able to damage off the dribble against Ole Miss' bigger, slower defenders.

Faced with a similar dilemma against Florida, Kennedy elected to have the Rebels play zone defense, keeping the Rebel big men off the wing as much as possible.

And while the Rebels weren't hurt off the dribble, Florida got open looks at the basket from the three-point line and out-rebounded Ole Miss 39-36 - the first time an opponent grabbed more boards than the Rebels all season.

Ole Miss could elect to go zone against Auburn, a team that's shooting 32 percent from three-point range. Auburn also is averaging 1.9 more rebounds a game than its opponents.

Regardless of the issues smaller lineups provide, Curtis said he's not tired of seeing it.

"I can't say I'm sick of it," he said. "It's a challenge though. I'm up for the challenge of guarding smaller guys. It's helped me move my feet a lot faster."

Kennedy said he would also look to freshman Zach Graham to come off the bench and spend some time as a No. 4 in an Ole Miss four-guard lineup.

Graham's come off the bench in each of the Rebels' 16 games. He's averaging 5.7 points and 2.1 rebounds.

"He's just got to figure it out. Right now he gets caught in a little bit of a dilemma as it regards to match ups," Kennedy said. "When he comes in, he's going to drive it at the basket. He's been very aggressive. We want him to show that same aggression defensively and on the glass."

Graham said he and the Rebels are ready for another smaller team.

"I think we've handled it pretty well," Graham said. "Our big men are strong inside, but they can also go out to the wing and guard some big men who can move.

"It's just another strength of our team. With our size, we can play four guards and not have a big drop off."

After traveling to Auburn, the Rebels will have a week to prepare for a tough showdown at Mississippi State.

Kennedy said the test at Auburn would be the kind of game that tests the Rebels toughness in a number of ways.

"This is a real rough stretch for us," he said. "These games are hard and they're physical. Mentally, they're draining; physically, they're draining."

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