Auburn vs. Ole Miss basketball preview: Tigers aim to stay hot in SEC opener

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers open conference play against the Rebels. Can they hold off the Marshall Henderson-less Rebels and extend their four-game winning streak?

The Auburn Tigers (8-3) travel to Oxford, Miss., to open SEC play against the Ole Miss Rebels (9-4). The Tigers looked solid in their last game against Florida A&M, winning 81-50, but Thursday night's game is only the third trip of the year to date. The Rebels are without their beloved Marshall Henderson, who is serving the first of his two-game conference suspension.

Auburn dropped a heartbreaker at home against Ole Miss last January, 63-61, and the Tigers student section was endeared to the illustrious Henderson. Tony Barbee's teams was positively throttled when it traveled to Oxford, losing 88-55 last February. Can the Tigers emerge victorious this time around?

Kenpom.com currently ranks Ole Miss 80th in the nation. The only teams the Rebs have faced that were ranked higher than they were at the time of play are Kansas, Oregon and Dayton. Ole Miss came up short in all three (61-58, 115-105 in OT, 83-80 OT, respectively). The Rebels even dropped a game at home to Mercer (79-76, but hey, Auburn let Northwestern State put up triple-digits, so I won't go very far harping about this). My point is that Ole Miss tends to beat lower-ranked teams.

Auburn sits at 157, and Kenpom gives Auburn an 18 percent chance of winning this game, with a predicted score of 84-73 in the Rebs' favor. Do what you want with that information, because Kenpom didn't have a lot of confidence in the Tigers for the Clemson game. Even as your resident sunshine pumper, I was caught off guard with that win. Never felt so good to be so wrong.

Auburn leads the all-time series with the Rebels, 73-54. Ole Miss is quickly gaining on that by winning seven of the last nine, including each of the last four. The Rebels are 38-23 against the Tigers in their own house. It is with great displeasure to note that Andy Kennedy is 10-5 against Auburn, and Tony Barbee is 2-6 against Ole Miss. Auburn has never lost five games in a row against Ole Miss.

Team Numbers at a Glance

Auburn Ole Miss
Scoring Average 76.9 79.8
Scoring Defense 70.8 72.0
Scoring Margin +6.1 +7.8
Field Goal % .466 .437
Field Goal % Defense .422 .411
3-Point % .303 .378
3-Point % Defense .385 .353
Free Throw % .695 .678
Rebounding Average 38.0 37.8
Rebounding Margin +4.0 -3.1
Turnover Average 12.0 11.6
Turnover Margin +0.7 +3.1


Personnel

The probable first five on the floor for the Tigers are guards Tahj Shamsid-Deen (5'10, 163 pounds), Chris Denson (6'2, 181) and K.T. Harrell (6'4, 216), forward Allen Payne (6'6, 225), and center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (7'0, 226). Malcolm Canada (6'3, 224) will come in to run point and often to give a bigger defensive push. Look for the following guys to also make an impact off the bench: forward Chris Griffin (6'7, 229), center Matthew Atewe (6'9, 250) and forward Dion Wade (6'5, 170). Ole Miss has tested big men, so it remains to be seen if Barbee will utilize freshman center Benas Griciunas (7'0, 225) in league play. At the time of this post, Jordon Granger is still on personal leave from the team.

I was amused to see that Ole Miss did not bother to update its projected starters section in their official game notes, because it still lists Henderson. This is also the same administration that retained Kennedy, so go figure. Ole Miss lists forward Sebastian Saiz (6'9, 233), center Demarco Cox (6'8, 276), guard LaDarius White, guard Jarvis Summers (6'6, 211) as the expected starters. Based on stats alone, I would anticipate seeing guard Derrick Millinghaus (5'10, 172). Expect to see these guys come in from the bench: Aaron Jones (6'9, 220), Anthony Perez (6'9, 213), Martavious Newby (6'3, 210), and Dwight Coleby (6'9, 236).

Ole Miss has blocked 95 shots on the season -- third in the nation, first in the league. The Rebels' leading blocker is Jones, averaging 2.5 per game. He is tied for 36th in the country and is third in the conference. It will be interesting to see how the Rebs fare without their leading three man, Henderson. He leads the SEC, and comes in third nationally, making 4.42 three-pointers per game. Summers will definitely be a key scoring factor -- he is second in scoring (17.8 ppg), takes fewer three-point shots, but has a better average than Henderson (24-of-44 compared to 53-of-138). The Rebels are good on the glass with Demarco (6.3 rpg), Jones (6.8 rpg) and Sebastian (6.5 rpg).

Quoting Coach Barbee

On having momentum going into the SEC season
"I think we are in a good place mentally. We have a lot of new players this year. It's a process as you try and grow with a young team, getting everyone on the same page, developing that chemistry and the style of how you want to play. We had some ups and downs through our non-conference season but we finished it on an up-note as guys got more comfortable in their roles. I feel like we are in a good place mentally as we go into league play."

On facing Ole Miss without Marshall Henderson...
"It is going to be a challenge. He does so much for their team and he draws so much attention. He is one of those players that makes everyone around him better because of the attention he draws.There is not much to go on in terms of Ole Miss without Marshall on the floor. We will just look at the games that they played and some of the times he is off the floor to try and figure out what they will try and do without him on the floor. Make no mistake about it, they've got another player, Jarvis Summers, who is one of the better players in the league at the guard position and he has the ability to do the same things as if not more as Marshall on the floor if not more with his size, scoring ability and ability to rebound from that guard position. It is still going to be a difficult match-up even without Marshall there."

Dreaming and Scheming

I have a few concerns for the Tigers, mostly just being on the road. It will be different without Henderson -- I am at least glad if he does face Auburn again, it will be in the Arena. Ole Miss isn't a great team, but the Rebels aren't a horrible team. They were picked to finish fifth in the league preseason, and based on the limited amount I have seen, I would say that is about right. Frankly, without Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway, they aren't even close to the same team they were last year. While they have other defensive weapons, they still rely on Henderson for almost all of their three-point shots. Summers is a better all-around player and probably an even more reliable shooter.

So for me, without Henderson, this game comes down to attacking the boards, limiting fouls and making free throws, and Harrell/Denson finding a way to get points on the board. I would love for ADT, Canada and Payne to have a strong night defensively, and hopefully Griffin and Atewe will be strong off the bench. TSD has grown up a lot since the season started, and Thursday night will be an indicator of how well he can fare in the league. I have reservations, but I can't help but be excited. The Clemson win was the first time in a long time we have seen the Tigers battle until the end. It was promising to see them follow up a big emotional win with good play against Boston College and Florida A&M.

Oh screw it, I pick the Tigers by 1. Keep the hope alive, Auburn. War Damn.

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