Surprising Rebels face daunting task at UT|[01/09/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Picked to finish dead last in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division, the Ole Miss Rebels are now being mentioned among the league’s elite teams.

Tonight will be a barometer of how elite they really are.

Eighteenth-ranked Ole Miss (13-0) will battle No. 8 Tennessee tonight at 7 in Knoxville. The game will be televised locally by WJTV-12 in Jackson. It marks the first game of Southeastern Conference play. Mississippi State will play at LSU today, but all eyes will be on mammoth Thompson-Boling Arena as the Rebels look to continue the best start in school history.

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“I don’t think Tennessee gets the recognition nationally that they deserve,” said second-year Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy. “I think they have enough pieces and their style of play to go deep into March.”

The Vols, whose only loss came to Texas in the Legends Classic, mirror the Rebels offensively. Each team averages more than 86 points per game and Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said he expects the tempo to be fast.

“I like the way Ole Miss plays. They do a lot of the same things we do,” Pearl said. “I think the tempo will be up, but not out of control, because they like to run and so do we.”

That running begins with a pair of talented guards. Tennessee’s Chris Lofton was chosen as a preseason All-America and Ole Miss freshman Chris Warren has caught the eyes of league coaches. Lofton averages 14.5 points per game and has hit 40 3-pointers. He is one of four Vols averaging in double figures.

Warren is a rising star from Florida who leads the Rebels with 15.2 points per game.

“I believe Chris Warren is one of the finest freshman guards I have seen in college basketball,” Pearl said.

Preseason predictions would not have had this game pegged for anything other than a Wednesday night affair. The Rebels were picked to finish last in the six-team SEC West. All they’ve done in response is reel off 13 straight wins, including a 10-point victory over a Clemson team that led top-ranked North Carolina until the final second Sunday night.

“I think Ole Miss, for what they have done so far, is the best team in the West,” LSU coach John Brady said.

Kennedy appreciated the sentiment, but was far from picking his team as the best in the west.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Kennedy said. “We are a work in progress. I am proud of the guys and their hard work that has put us in this position, but we have a long way to go.”

Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi State likely will be the Rebels’ main competition in the league. The Bulldogs, who have won four straight games, open conference play at LSU.

The Bulldogs’ top returner, Charles Rhodes, has missed the last two games with an ankle injury and his status for the LSU game is in question.

Rhodes is still second on the team in scoring with a 15.2 points per game average, trailing senior guard JaMont Gordon by two points per game. Gordon is a catalyst for a team coming off a win over Lafayette College in Jackson on Saturday afternoon.