Surprising Ole Miss at the top of SEC West
Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The Mississippi Rebels are playing like they haven't in years. Unfortunately for Mississippi State, so are the Bulldogs.
The state's two Southeastern Conference teams seem headed in opposite directions: While Ole Miss is at the top of the SEC West, Mississippi State is stuck near the bottom.
The roles are reversed for the Bulldogs, who since 2003 have two SEC West titles and a third-place finish, and the Rebels, who in that span haven't finished higher than a tie for fourth.
"I think we have the makings of a special team," Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes said Thursday. "But there are so many teams in our league that are better than we are, I believe, at this particular point that we've got a lot of work to do. But if we continue to work hard, this team could be an NCAA team, but we're so far from that right now."
The Rebels (13-3, 3-0) are seeking their eighth straight win Saturday when they face Georgia, and are tied with LSU atop the West. They won their first three league games for the first time since 1997-98, and won 13 of their first 16 games for the first time since 2001-02.
Ole Miss went to the NCAA tournament in both of those seasons.
"This team really can't right now, at this particular time, be compared" to those NCAA tournament teams, Barnes said. "The only resemblance is, this team is a team that works the way that team worked. There's competition at every position."
Meanwhile, Mississippi State (11-6, 1-3) has its first three-game losing streak since 2003 after losing at home to LSU and is tied with Arkansas for fourth in the West, ahead of only Auburn.
A loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday would give the Bulldogs their first four-game slide since the 1999-2000 team lost five straight and wound up tied for fifth in the West, their worst finish of the Rick Stansbury era.
"I don't think Vanderbilt's the place you go to heal up very often," Stansbury said.
Does the archrival Rebels' success make Mississippi State's struggles even tougher to swallow?
"It's an important year for him, and I'm glad to see his team do well, believe it or not," Stansbury said. "To win every game every year, that's not going to happen. ... We've had a lot of success against them."
Ronald Steele knew what some were thinking when already struggling Alabama lost star player Chuck Davis for the season.
Bye bye, Bama.
"A lot of people wrote us off," the Crimson Tide point guard said.
Instead of fading away, Alabama has started playing better, rallying to win three consecutive Southeastern Conference games with different stars in each.
The Tide (10-6, 3-1) rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to beat Arkansas 78-75 on Wednesday night, with Steele forcing overtime with three late free throws and hitting the game-winning layup in OT. He finished with 25 points, nine more than his previous career-high.
Before that, freshman Alonzo Gee scored six points in the final 2:17 of a win at Auburn and Jermareo Davidson turned in a career-best 28-point performance in a victory at Kentucky. Alabama trailed in the second half of both games.
"The fun thing about our team right now is I think each guy is making key contributions at key times," coach Mark Gottfried said. "You can go through everybody on our roster. They're all making key plays. That's all you can ask of them."
Davis was lost for the season with a knee injury early in a 71-61 loss to Mississippi. The loss dropped the Tide, ranked 15th early in the season, to 7-6 and near the bottom of the SEC West.
Alabama is now playing more like the team picked to win the division entering Saturday's game at LSU.
"Just our confidence is building as we win games," said Davidson, averaging 14.3 points and 9.7 rebounds. "When Chuck went down, we wanted to play hard for him as well as ourselves."
Steele has played at least 40 minutes in the past six games, boosting his scoring average from 10.3 points to 11.8 over the last three.
"I think sometimes when you have a great player like Chuck, we were all kind of watching him play and relying on him too much," Steele said.
"By him not being there, I realize for us to be a good team I have to be more aggressive. Not just trying to shoot but creating more for my teammates."
Davidson, meanwhile, is averaging 21.6 points and 9.7 rebounds in the three games without Davis.
Freshman guard Brandon Hollinger has seen his minutes and scoring escalate substantially since Davis went down.
"We have a lot of character," Steele said. "We just refuse to lose and we just keep fighting. We just have a lot of heart."
But Davidson knows the Tide hasn't quieted all the skeptics with the recent run, not with 12 league games left.
"They probably still don't think we have a chance," he said. "They're probably still doubting us, but we're going to put it all to the side and play through it."
Gottfried cites a difficult nonconference schedule that included games against Memphis, Notre Dame, North Carolina State and Oklahoma for helping his team through tight games lately.
"If you're never or rarely in situations where you've got to dig down deep in November and December, I don't think you're as good in January or February," he said. "I really don't.
"We've been in those situations enough times this year that we're learning and getting better."
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