Tennessee (9-7, 1-3 SEC) at No. 23 Ole Miss (15-2, 4-0 SEC)
Thursday, Jan. 24, 7:00 p.m. ET
Tad Smith Coliseum (9,061) . Oxford, Miss.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads, 69-40
Probable Ole Miss Starters
F-Reginald Bucker, 6-9, 245, SR (10.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg)
F-Murphy Holloway, 6-7, 240, SR (15.8 ppg, 10.6 rpg)
G-LaDarius White, 6-6, 210, SO (4.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg)
G-Marshall Henderson, 6-2, 175, JR (18.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .358 3PT)
G-Jarvis Summers, 6-3, 184, SO (8.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 3.7 apg)
Key Reserves: Nick Williams (6-4, 212, SR); Derrick Millinghaus (5-10, 170, FR); Aaron Jones (6-9, 218, SO).
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Kenny Hall, 6-9, 230, SR, (6.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (10.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, .634 FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (11.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
G-Skylar McBee, 6-3, 195, SR, (5.7 ppg, 0.9 rpg, .317 3PT%)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-1, 205, JR, (13.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .329 3FG%)
Key Reserves: Trae Golden (6-2, 205, JR); Armani Moore (6-5, 203, FR); Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 250, SO); Derek Reese (6-7, 218, FR).
The opening tip
Maybe “must-win” is too heavy a title at this point in the season, but this trip to Oxford is a huge opportunity for a Tennessee team that started out 1-3 in conference play.
Moving to 2-3 in SEC play, as opposed to 1-4, isn’t going to instantly vault the Vols into NCAA Tournament consideration, but it would change the Vols’ outlook significantly. That’s especially true when the upcoming schedule is taken into consideration. The Vols play three of their next four at home and don’t face another ranked team until Florida comes to town on Feb. 26.
But the lack of ranked opponents on the schedule also means the Vols must capitalize when they get an opportunity like Thursday night. Beating the Rebels, a team ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll and No. 32 in the RPI, would be one of just a few quality wins for the Vols.
Other than their win over Wichita State (RPI: 15), the next-best quality win for the Vols is their victory over UMass (RPI: 64).
And then there’s the Marshall Henderson factor. You can read more about it here, but there’s no doubt that the Vols will be looking for a little bit of revenge on the Rebels’ sharp-shooting guard who scored 32 points in Ole Miss’ 92-74 win over UT in Knoxville on Jan. 9, and then let the UT players and fans hear about it down the stretch as the Rebels pulled away.
Ole Miss features a lot more than Henderson though. He’s certainly been their catalyst this season, but the Rebels also have talented point guard Jarvis Summers, who facilitates the offense. The frontcourt duo of Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway combine for an average of almost 20 rebounds a game.
The Vols got 26 points from Jordan McRae when they played the Rebels earlier, but they’d prefer to be more balanced. Getting point guard Trae Golden back on track will be essential if Tennessee is going to make any noise in the SEC. The former starter had 10 points, nine assists and just two turnovers in the win over Mississippi State on Saturday. Coach Cuonzo Martin wants to see him win the starting point guard spot back, but he’ll have to prove he’s ready.
Martin on if he hopes his team responds to Henderson scoring 32 points on them earlier this year: “I hope so. The guy was scoring the basketball – he was making plays. If he is allowed to do it, I enjoyed watching him. I hate being on the other side but he is a competitive basketball player, you have to step up to the plate.”
Ole Miss ranks third nationally in scoring, averaging 82.4 ppg. . Jordan McRae is second in the SEC in scoring in conference games (20.5 ppg). . The 92 points the Rebels scored against the Vols earlier this season is the most the Vols have given up this season. . Freshman guard Armani Moore is expected to be available for this game, but did miss some practice time with a hip injury this week. . Freshman swingman Derek Reese has hit nearly 60 percent of his 3-point attempts in the last two games. He might see less time in this game, though, with the Vols needing more bulk in the post to guard Ole Miss’ large frontcourt.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga