Ole Miss faced its first true test of the 2012-13 season Saturday against Rutgers…
Its lack of success in its non-conference schedule was a big reason why.
The Rebels lost four games to teams outside of the Southeastern Conference, with three of those losses coming in December. The month included back-to-back losses to Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee State, as well as a Dec. 30 defeat at Dayton.
A year later, Ole Miss, 5-0 overall, faces its first true non-conference test when it hosts Rutgers (4-1) Saturday at 1 p.m.
"The thing about last year, around December, we stopped playing like a team," sophomore forward Aaron Jones said. "We were fussing at each other and stuff like that. This year, we listen to each other and we're trying to play like a team. We're still trying to find our identity."
Ole Miss had a number of problems last season. As head coach Andy Kennedy tells it, he coached three different teams. From suspensions to dismissals to critical injuries, the roster was constantly in flux.
However, Ole Miss is relatively healthy entering its meeting with Rutgers, save for an injury to backup point guard Derrick Millinghaus, who's out 4-6 weeks with a meniscus tear in his knee.
Even more, there have been no off-the-court incidents to speak of.
"We're confident," Jones, who is averaging 5.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, said. "But we know our first test is going to be on Saturday."
Senior Murphy Holloway is fully aware of the importance of these non-conference games, especially against a team such as Rutgers. NCAA tournament resumes are built in December.
"I think it's real critical," he said. "They're in the Big East. That could help us with trying to build our resume to go to the (NCAA) tournament. You never know who they might beat in the Big East. It's a very critical game."
Ole Miss coasted through its first five games, its average margin of victory 33.2 points. The Rebels scored no less than 90 points in four of those games, including a 46-point win vs. Lipscomb last week.
But for Kennedy, Rutgers is a significant leap forward for a team still finding its way.
"I think the way we've played has been satisfactory," he said. "We've done what we were supposed to do. I've been pleased. Now it's time to take that next step, and Saturday gives us an opportunity to do so."
Holloway, named SEC Player of the Week for Nov. 26, said the Rebels learned how to play together in the early-season slate. Ole Miss has six newcomers. All but Jason Carter, suspended for a violation of team rules, saw minutes.
"I think we learned how to play together," he said. "We didn't play the hardest of teams. We know that. We learned to play together, getting used to having a good 3-point shooter in Marshall (Henderson), how to play with him."
Henderson has started every game in his debut season at Ole Miss, leading the Rebels in scoring with 17 points per game.
However, he's shooting just 39 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range. He struggled mightily against McNeese State and Lipscomb, combining to shoot 6 of 26 from the field, with only four makes in his last 22 3-point tries.
"He's fine. It's not going to keep him from shooting the ball," Kennedy said of Henderson. "I've got to remember, he hadn't played in a Division-I game in a few years. He's really excited. I'm sure Rutgers is going to game plan to try to limit his touches. He has to be a little more patient in allowing the game to come to him.
"Sometimes he searches a little bit early and as a result, takes some low-percentage shots. If you start missing a few of those, that rim shrinks. I know from experience. It can shrink on you."