Ol’ Miss hosts Florida in SEC battle

Mississippi isn’t very good at shooting 3-pointers and even worse at the free-throw line, serious flaws that have made scoring points a struggle during stretches this season.

But the Rebels do have some muscle – and they like to flex it.

That’s been enough to keep Ole Miss (13-6, 3-2) in the top half of the Southeastern Conference going into Thursday’s home game with No. 14 Florida (15-4, 4-1).

Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed Florida as a 5 1/2-point road favorite.

Reginald Buckner, Murphy Holloway and Terrance Henry form a tenacious, veteran trio. They grab rebounds, play defense and specialize in winning ugly, making up for whatever they lack in talent with sheer hustle.

“It’s what we need. It’s who we are,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “The reality is our most veteran group is our frontcourt.”

And they’ve also been the Rebels’ most productive group. Ole Miss is second in the SEC in rebounding margin, behind only top-ranked Kentucky. Holloway and Buckner rank third and fourth, respectively, in the league in rebounds per game.

“Right now, we’re going against maybe the best rebounding team in the league, if not one of the best in the country,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Any time you can rebound the basketball like they do, it eliminates second chances. Across the front line, they’ve got length, size and athleticism.”

Buckner, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound junior, is already the school’s career leader in blocked shots with 203 through 2 1/2 seasons. His defensive ability has never been questioned, but his offensive game lags behind because of an awkward shooting touch and robotic moves in the post. He’s averaging 6.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.

Plus, there have been occasional issues with attitude. Kennedy suspended Buckner for a game earlier this season for a “violation of team rules” and the sixth-year coach has occasionally been critical of his demeanor during games.

One reason Kennedy gets frustrated is because Buckner’s potential is enormous. He flashed it briefly last week, with a dominant 19-point, 15-rebound performance that led the Rebels to a 75-68 victory over No. 18 Mississippi State.

“He came out with his head right,” Ole Miss sophomore Demarco Cox said. “When it was time for the shootaround before the game, he was ready to get a win. When he’s pumped up, we know we’ve got something good going.”

Buckner’s best moment in the win was a vicious dunk off a missed 3-pointer. The ball bounced high off the rim, but Buckner leapt over the entire Mississippi State defense, plucking the ball more than a foot above the basket before slamming it through the hoop.

The crowd roared in approval. So did his teammates and coaches, but they weren’t exactly surprised.

“Reggie will be as good as he wants to be,” Kennedy said before the season. “He has an athleticism that few can match. He can get `man’ rebounds in the paint and truly changes what the opponent can do at the rim because he’s such a presence. He’s still developing offensively, but the tools are there. Now we just need him to be more consistent.”

Holloway has no such trouble with consistent effort. The generously listed 6-7 junior forward is probably closer to 6-5, but averages 10.4 points and 9.6 rebounds thanks to an unyielding energy and 240-pound body that always seems to be around the basketball.

Holloway’s importance was painfully evident earlier this season when he missed three games because of a sprained ankle. Ole Miss lost two of those three.

“Having Murphy back, it’s a very big deal,” Henry said. “He opens up a lot of things. Just his presence out there, he takes on two or three defenders, trying to box them out.”

The 6-9 Henry is the only senior who receives significant playing time. He also is the leading scorer at 11.5 points per game. Though his 210-pound frame is much more wiry than Holloway or Buckner, he shares their love for contact in the paint and isn’t afraid to take the ball to the basket and draw contact. He had 24 points and 10 rebounds in a 66-63 road win over Georgia on Saturday, earning the SEC’s player of the week.

The experienced frontcourt helps Ole Miss offset relatively weak guard play. The Rebels have the league’s worst assist-turnover ratio and rank last in 3-point shooting, making just 27.2 percent of their attempts from long range.