Rebs hope to claim victory in SEC road opener

Eniel Polynice

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The stage is set. The game is on. Ole Miss and Tennessee meet in a season-opening SEC showdown here tonight.

It's still early January. Neither team has played a conference game. Yet the nation watches as the Rebels invade Thompson-Boling Arena in search of an upset that would give them even more credibility than the 13-0 start has.

Senior center Dwayne Curtis says the 15th-ranked Rebels are ready. But he knows the 8th-ranked Volunteers (12-1) and their fans are waiting.

"Tough. That atmosphere is something serious," said Curtis, a sophomore in his first season with the Rebels the last time Ole Miss ventured to UT for hoops, an 86-72 Vol victory. "I remember two years ago."

With a lot of young players on the Rebel squad, Curtis said keeping their heads about them is important.

"We've got to keep our composure," said Curtis, tied with freshman point guard Chris Warren as the team's scoring leader at 15.2 points per game and alone atop the team's rebounding list with 8.2 per outing. "We probably won't be able to hear each other out there. We'll have to do some signs. We won't be able to call the plays out. We won't be able to hear them."

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said the start of conference play is always a special time.

"Our kids are certainly excited about starting league play," he said. "It's a tremendous challenge going into Knoxville and playing a very good Tennessee team."

The Rebels have only played one true road game this season, in a hostile environment that is. That was a 76-67 UM win over Central Florida before 5,574 fans in Orlando. There will four times that many here tonight.

"Just focus on playing and don't worry about the crowd," sophomore guard Eniel Polynice said of what he and the young Rebels must do in this one. "Don't let them get in your head. Just go out and play your game."

He knows it's essential for the Rebels to play within themselves and continue to do what they do best if they are to win.

"I think it's going to be one of the hardest games of the season," Polynice said. "We've just got to come out there and have more energy and intensity than they have. We're just going to go out there and play our game."

One thing will change Wednesday night. Ole Miss is the lone team in the league to beat a ranked team, an 85-82 win over then 15th-ranked Clemson. Either the Rebels will add a second win against a ranked opponent to their resume' or the Vols will join them as the only other SEC team to beat a ranked foe this season.

"I think people who on Sunday had an opportunity to watch Clemson know they're for real," Kennedy said of the Tigers, who lost to No. 1 ranked North Carolina 90-88 in overtime. "They're a quality opponent."

Just as the Vols will be. Actually this is a surprise headline game given the fact that UT was the general consensus to win the SEC this season and the Rebels were by most accounts thought to be the league's last place team.

"We're still a work in progress," Kennedy said. "I'm proud our guys have worked hard to put us in this position. I'm glad to this point that we've done enough to continue to move the program forward. But we've got a lot of work to do."

The Rebels will have to be at their best yet if they want to head into a two-game homestand against LSU and Florida with a 1-0 SEC mark. Kennedy said Tennessee has what it takes to make a national championship run this season.

"I think their play over the next few months will prove that," he said. "I think they have the pieces and a style of play to make a long, long run in March. I hope it doesn't start Wednesday night. But I'll be a big fan of theirs starting Thursday."

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