And just like that, SEC play is set to begin. No. 5 Tennessee enters conference play with a 10-3 mark, suffering losses to powerhouses North Carolina, Purdue and Kansas early on. Since then they’ve been able to bounce back, stabilizing with wins over Illinois and NC State among a handful of tune-up games.
Tennessee will get another ranked matchup to open SEC play, set to host No. 22 Ole Miss. The Rebels are 13-0 as Chris Beard has quickly put his stamp on the program through the first two months of the season. The schedule has been fairly light, but Beard’s new team has picked up wins over Memphis, NC State and Cal. The Rebels did have close calls against Detroit Mercy, Temple and Sam Houston, however.
“Chris Beard has done just an incredible job everywhere he has ever been,” Rick Barnes said on Friday. “You know what his teams are. They take on his personality. They are going to play really hard. They execute. They definitely aren’t going to beat themselves. They don’t turn the ball over. He really does a terrific job of getting his players in position to where they can be at their best.”
The Volunteers have won eight of their last night over Ole Miss, dating back to the 2016-17 season. However, Beard obviously can unlock a new level for the program, which we’re already seeing happen. It today’s transfer portal driven world of college athletics, it doesn’t take long to flip a roster and mold it into a winner.
Beard has taken Allen Flanigan (Auburn) and Jaylen Murray (Saint Peters) and done just that. Flanigan, a 6-6 senior guard, is probably a name you know. He’s averaging over 16 points per game for the Rebels so far this year, shooting a whopping 40 percent from three point range. He’s also pulling down 7.5 rebounds per contest. Murray is averaging nearly 15 points per game, shooting 46 percent from long range.
Both of those additions are only adding to longtime Rebel Matthew Murrell, who is leading Ole Miss in scoring yet again with 17 points per game.
“I think he’s been effective every year,” Barnes said of Murrell. “I mean, we recruited Matt Murrell, you know, and his body’s in great shape. He certainly has worked on his shot through the years. He defends, he’s a good player. He’s just like, I’m sure they say the same thing about Josiah and Santi about being around for a long time. And because of that, they’ve been through a lot of tough situations. They can handle most of them. I don’t think it’s any different with Murrell.”
Ole Miss has three guards that can fill it up and space you out, but they also have a couple of bigs to worry about as well. Jaemyn Brakefield, a former Duke Blue Devil, stands in at 6-8 and averages 10.8 and six per game.
Moussa Cisse, a seven-footer who has seemingly been around forever with a few different programs, is also coming along after a late start to the year. And then you’ve got Jamarion Sharp — a 7-foot-5 senior center transfer from Western Kentucky — playing nearly 20 minutes per game.
“Not only can he spread you out, but they got some guys inside you got to deal with,” Barnes said of the Rebels. “And they’ve got two terrific shot blockers. So, again, a lot of credit goes to the players, but again, Coach Beard is just what I said earlier, is just putting them in a great position to be effective and hard to defend.”
For Tennessee, it’s still a group trying to hit on all cylinders. For whatever reason it’s been — Dalton Knecht’s injury, Zakai Zeiglers early-season recovery, Santiago Vescovi’s new role, or now a nicked up Jonas Aidoo — they just haven’t been able to really put the pieces together at once.
The good news is that Zeigler certainly appears to be 100 percent back, while Knecht seems to have put any ankle issues behind him during the Christmas break.
They face their next test on Saturday with a good Ole Miss squad coming into Food City Center. Tennessee hasn’t lost at home since last February, holding one of the strongest homecourt advantages in the country over the past few years.
Tip-off between Tennessee and Ole Miss is set for 6 p.m. ET on Saturday. SEC Network will have the coverage.