This time around there's no mistaking who Ole Miss is. No more questions about the schedule and no more questions about their talent: the Rebels were 11-2 with no quality wins when last we met. Two weeks later they're 15-2, undefeated in the SEC with all four wins by double digits. That's Missouri, at Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and of course, at Tennessee. Now Ole Miss is ranked 23rd and rising, 32nd in RPI and 20th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.
And now, everyone knows about Marshall Henderson.
The last time he had single digits was November 20 against McNeese State. He averages 19.5 per game on the year, 21.2 in conference play. And his best game of the year so far? 32 in Knoxville.
We know Henderson especially well, between his "I'mma get 30" taunt to our student section and his boisterous behavior running back down the floor. It was the most points any one player has scored against any - Tennessee or Missouri State - Cuonzo Martin team. It was the lowest point of this basketball season.
And if Tennessee is going to be a good basketball team in 2013, the highest point of its season thus far has to be tonight.
Make no mistake: Henderson and the Rebels disrespected the Vols in their 92-74 win in Knoxville, and we've got no one to blame but ourselves. The Rebels are a good basketball team, no doubt. But there is no excuse for what happened in Knoxville. And if Tennessee doesn't like what happened the last time around, tonight we get a second chance to make it right. One of the fun parts of the new SEC Basketball schedule is it doesn't take long to build new rivalries: between the SEC Tournament last year and two weeks ago in Knoxville, I really don't care for this Ole Miss basketball team. At all. And the Vols need to play like they feel the same.
We can still beat the lower half of this league with Jordan McRae and a half-decent night from Trae Golden. Jarnell Stokes will still dominate teams with no post presence. But to find our way back to the dance floor, it will take what brought us to the building in the first place: a phenomenal defensive effort. That's what was buried in Thompson-Boling two weeks ago, and that's what the Vols have to rediscover against a good team in a suddenly-hostile environment tonight.
Tennessee should take Marshall Henderson very, very personally. What he did to us was more than just good, it was embarrassing. And Tennessee needs to make it their business to ensure it does not happen again tonight. If we're going to be the team that lives on the defensive end, we cannot let a night like Henderson had happen again. And we need to make absolutely sure, early and often, that he knows it tonight.
Cuonzo's teams won't play dirty, nor am I suggesting they should. But you'd better believe we can be more physical with Henderson than we were last time, and you'd better believe it's necessary against Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner inside. This is a man's challenge for Jarnell Stokes, the likes of which he truly won't see again this year with Florida and Missouri both coming to Knoxville. This is as tough and as big as it will get for him until/unless the Vols make the postseason. He got a good one under his belt against Mississippi State. But this is the one that would truly show improvement. In a grown man's game, he needs to do more than show up. I know Yemi will have his back.
And the Vols will never reach anything close to their ceiling without Trae Golden playing well. He too was encouraging against the Bulldogs, but the Rebels present a greater challenge. Is he ready?
Tennessee's longshot NCAA Tournament hopes could drift further to the back burner with another loss. But this has turned into a huge opportunity for a quality win - again, without a trip to Gainesville or Columbia, MO, this could be Tennessee's biggest RPI boost of the entire season. A loss would hurt, but a win? A win gets you right back in the conversation.
Are the Vols good enough? More importantly, are the Vols tough enough? We've learned to bet on Cuonzo's teams in that department, but Ole Miss took that away from us two weeks ago. But for whatever has been lost this season, tonight's the night the Vols can take it back.
7:00 PM ET, ESPN2. Make a statement.