Saturday, November 21, 2009

Preview - Puerto Rico Tip-Off Championship - #5 Wildcats vs. Mississippi, 8 PM, Sunday - ESPN2

To the Wildcat faithful-

A preview of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off Championship, which will take place at approximately 8 PM, on Sunday, November 22, on ESPN2... (fans will no longer have to hunt around digital cable to find ESPNU...)

The Viewpoint on the Mississippi Rebels

2009-10 Record - 4-0 overall

#5 Villanova (4-0 overall) will be facing a challenge from another unbeaten squad.  Mississippi has not faced difficulty in its four games thus far, all of which it has won, by double-digit margins.

The Rebels opened the season with two home games in Oxford, Mississippi, crushing two low-major opponents.  They walloped Arkansas-Little Rock, 92-64, to open the season on Friday the 13th - see the previous entry on triskaidekaphobia.  Three days later, they had no trouble annihilating Alabama State, 90-53.

In Thursday's quarterfinal of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic, the Rebels breezed past once-powerful Indiana, 89-71.  Yesterday, in the other semifinal, Mississippi cruised to a 72-58 victory over Kansas State, after leading by just two at halftime.

2008-09 season - 16-15 overall, 7-9 SEC, 5th place finish in the six-team Western Division.

The Rebels fell in the first round of the SEC tournament in Tampa, against Kentucky, and did not qualify for postseason play.  As a major-conference team with a winning record overall and a respectable record in SEC play, it was surprising that the Rebels did not receive an invitation from the NIT.  It's even more puzzling, in light of the fact that Mississippi had reached the NIT semifinals in 2007-08 (more on that below...)

The team was plagued with injuries, but benefited from the impact of freshman Terrico White, named SEC Freshman of the Year.  White considered leaving early for the NBA, but ulimately withdrew his name, a break for the Rebels.  They did lose one other key player, though.  David Huertas, a guard who averaged over 18 points/game last season, gave up his senior year to play professionally, ironically in Puerto Rico.

The other standout for Ole Miss is Chris Warren, a junior guard who missed half of last season due to a knee injury, but had averaged 15.8 pts/game as a freshman, and 19.6 last year before his injury.  Warren had 27 points in the victory over Kansas State on Friday.

Junior guard Eniel Polynice also missed almost all of last season due to injury, but has played well thus far - he's scored in double figures in three of the last four games.  Sophomore forward Murphy Holloway has exploded in Puerto Rico, scoring 26 points against Indiana and recording a precise double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) against Kansas State.   In the paint, Mississippi has deterred opponents' shot;  freshman Reginald Buckner  has helped to provides that shot blocking presence; swatting three of K-State's shots on Friday.  As a team, Mississippi blocked seven K-State shots, as well as a dozen Indiana shots, in the quarterfinals.

With Villanova hampered by the unavailability of freshman Mouphtaou Yarou, due to illness, it may be difficult for the Wildcats to establish an inside presence.  The Wildcats will likely try to win by using their accurate outside shooters; a key factor could be whether Taylor King can help spread the Mississippi defense, due to his perimeter skills.

The school colors are Harvard crimson and Yale blue... here's why:
In 1893, when Ole Miss' first football team was in training for a five–game season, Dr. A.L. Bondurant, organizer and manager–coach, later recalled that "The team had much discussion as to the colors that should be adopted, but it was finally suggested by the manager that the union of the Crimson of Harvard and the Navy Blue of Yale would be very harmonious, and that it was well to have the spirit of both of these good colleges." These were adopted as the football colors, and have since been adopted by the University as its athletic colors.
Mississippi Basketball History

Although in the heart of football country, Mississippi basketball actually is more than a decade older than Villanova's program.  The Wildcats began play in 1920-21; the Rebels played their first game on January 28, 1909, against the memorably named Memphis Physicians.  As the Mississippi web site puts it:
Ole Miss plays its first organized basketball game, but the celebration is cut short by a 12-11 loss to the Memphis Physicians. Legend has it that Ole Miss led 7-6 at the half, but lost out in the second half when “with the wind at their backs, the Physicians overcame our half-time lead for a narrow victory.” The game was reportedly played outdoors on a court located behind the Lyceum on the Oxford campus.
Although the Rebels' program is older, it has been far less prominent than the one on the Main Line.  Mississippi did not qualify for the NCAA tournament until 1981, and has only been there five times.  Of those five appearances, they have only made it to the Sweet 16 once, in 2001.  Four of the five appearances came during the span of 1997-2001. 

In 1997, the Rebels made their second-ever NCAA appearance, 16 years after their initial one, but they fell to Temple in the first round.  In 1999, they defeated Villanova (more on that, later in the post, below).

Replayed Every March: Bryce Drew and Valparaiso in 1998

Ironically, the most famous Mississippi game in the NCAA tournament, was a game that they lost - in the first round, in 1998.   In one of the most dramatic, stunning underdog victories in the entire history of the tournament, the 5th-seeded Rebels lost to Bryce Drew and #12-seed Valparaiso, on a length-of-the-court, catch-and-heave triple at the buzzer.  (You've seen this play, at some point in your life, as it was an incredible ending; CBS uses it as a staple of their montages.)

The Rebels also have only been in the NIT, eight times.  Other than the Sweet 16 in 2001, the deepest that the Rebels have ever gone in March, was in 2007-08, when they enjoyed a strong run in the NIT.  Mississippi won three games and made it to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals, the first time in school history that it had ever played in the basketball mecca.  But Mississippi fell to Ohio State, which would win the NIT. 

Villanova / Mississippi Series History

The schools have only faced each other, on one occasion.  And it was one of the most heartbreaking NCAA tournament losses in Villanova's storied history.  On March 12, 1999, at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, the eighth-seeded Wildcats fell to the ninth-seeded Rebels, 72-70.  The Wildcats had two shots on their final possession, in the waning seconds, but could not get any of them to drop...  That team featured Howard Brown, John Celestand, Brian Lynch, T.J. Caouette, Malik Allen, Brooks Sales, Rafal Bigus, and Jermaine Medley, among others...

The Wildcats trailed 72-65, with less than two minutes to play, but rallied for five points to draw to within 72-70, on a triple from Caouette and a basket from Allen, with 55 seconds to go; Celestand and Brown each had a shot on the last possession, but neither fell.  In the last game of their careers, Brown finished with 17 points and nine rebounds; Celestand, a dozen points; Allen, a junior at the time, led the team with 19 points.   

In particular, the Wildcats had enormous trouble dealing with Jason Harrison, from Mississippi; at 5-5, he was very difficult to trap.  Marcus Hicks scored 21 points, and Keith Carter (now an Mississippi broadcaster) added 18 points, and Jason Smith, 17 points.

The game, ironically, figures far more prominently in Mississippi history - that was the Rebels' first win - ever - in the NCAA tournament (which has been played since 1939).  As their timeline puts it:
March 12, 1999 
After losing a heartbreaker at the buzzer to Valparaiso just the season before in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Rebels record their first NCAA Tournament win by defeating Villanova 72-70. Ole Miss did not make it to the Sweet 16 because Michigan State defeated the Red and Blue 74-66 in the second round.
For the Wildcats, the final season of the 20th century, was also the final NCAA tournament appearance, under Wright's predecessor, Steve Lappas.  During his nine years at the helm, from 1992-2001, Lappas-coached teams reached the NCAA tournament four times (1995, 1996, 1997, and 1999), but won only two games.  All six of Villanova's games were against lower seeds, but their record was 2-4.

The inability of the team to advance beyond the second round, was one of the major factors in his replacement by Wright after the 2000-01 season, after Lappas's final two teams narrowly missed at-large NCAA bids, and had to settle for the NIT.

This is a good segue, into an impressive accomplishment by Lappas - winning the Puerto Rico Shootout in 1996-1997.  Widely remembered as "the Tim Thomas year", the team featured such notables as Alvin Williams, Jason Lawson, Chuck Kornegay, and freshmen Lynch, Allen, and Caouette.

Ironically, Mississippi also won the San Juan Shootout, in 2007.

I'll have a comprehensive recap after the game...

Also, check out the fine Villanova blogs on the right sidebar, for their takes, on the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic Championship - Chris at I Bleed Blue and White already has preGame: #5 Villanova vs. Ole Miss ...

Go Wildcats!


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