In one game, an 87-74 loss to Kentucky on Tuesday, Ole Miss had lost its top two reserves. Made worse was the Rebels' upcoming opponent, the fourth-ranked Florida Gators in Gainesville, Fla.
Ole Miss and Florida are set for tipoff tonight at 6 p.m. CST.
“Nick, man, that’s my big brother on this basketball team,” guard LaDarius White said. “It hurt me so bad. It was a very emotional night. Aaron Jones, he’s a good friend of mine, also. As we got the news that he was going to be out for the whole season, it was a pause in there. It hurt really bad. It really hurt.”
But the Southeastern Conference schedule stops for no team. Ole Miss is 17-3 overall and 6-1 in league play. The Gators, meanwhile, are rolling, sitting atop the SEC with a 17-2 (7-0) record.
Andy Kennedy has faced these types of season-defining moments before, be it an ankle injury for Murphy Holloway against Middle Tennessee State last season, or Chris Warren tearing his ACL at Louisville in 2008.
With each season comes some form of adversity. The question becomes how this team will respond.
Terry Brutus now becomes the go-to backup for senior starters Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner with Jones out, with Anthony Perez taking on an increased role, as well.
“We’ll just have to play the hand that we’re dealt,” Kennedy said. “Right now, Terry Brutus would be our third post. He’s a 6-6, undersized four. But he’s physically tough. Every time that we’ve put him into the game, I think he’s given us quality minutes. He gives us great effort. His learning curve just has to be expedited.
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“Anthony Perez, he starts out as a wing. I flirted with him playing some point guard if need be. Now, he’s going to play most extensively on the front line as a face-four. Physically, he’s got a bit of a challenge, but he’s got the skill-set to do it. I think he’s got the ability to do it. He can rebound the ball, he can make open shots. I think he’s one of, if not the, most talented guys on our team.”
Ole Miss is looking for its first victory over a top-5 opponent since knocking off No. 5 Florida, 74-69, in the SEC tournament in 2001.
Ole Miss is 1-0 this season against ranked opponents, its win coming over then-No. 10 Missouri earlier this month.
To do it, however, Kennedy and Co. will have to be creative, and Holloway and Buckner will have to shoulder additional responsibility. They have to be prepared to play 40 minutes, according to Kennedy.
So far in league play, Holloway is averaging around 33 minutes per game, Buckner around 31 minutes. Foul trouble has become an issue the last few games, especially for Buckner, who recorded at least four fouls and played no more than 23 minutes against Auburn and Kentucky.
The Rebels were 1-1 in those games.
“We’ve got to do some things to possibly protect him and keep him in the game,” Kennedy said of Buckner. “And he has to do things in playing like a senior should play and knowing when to go and when not to go. I wouldn’t mind if he channeled his inner Nerlens Noel and played the last nine minutes, block five shots, game on the line, and not foul.”
Florida is riding a nine-game winning streak into the game, its longest streak since winning 10 straight in 2008-09. The Gators are 2-1 against ranked opponents this season, with home wins over Missouri and Wisconsin and a road loss to Arizona.
Florida ranks second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 50.4 points per game, while the Rebels rank fifth in the nation in scoring at 80.0 points per game. Florida has held three opponents to 40 points or fewer, 11 to 50 points and 15 under 60.
In losing Jones and Williams, Ole Miss has to make up for 14 points per game. Williams was averaging 9.4 points per game and shooting 34 percent from 3. Jones posted modest scoring numbers at 3.5 ppg, but he was grabbing 4.1 rebounds on average, and his 32 blocks ranked only behind Buckner, who has 54 on the year.
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White, who led the team in scoring the last two games with 17 and 22 points, respectively, said every player has to do more.
“We’ve just got to put it behind us and keep them in our prayers and hopefully everything goes well,” White said of Jones and Williams.
“Nick should be back this season, but it just hurt him so bad, ‘cause he’s a fifth-year senior. He’s trying to accomplish things. For an injury like that to happen at this time of the season, it hurt. It’s stressful, man.”
Help could be on the way in the next few weeks in the form of junior Demarco Cox. Cox has been sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot. Cox appeared briefly this season after a screw was placed in his foot, only to reinjure the same bone upon his return.
Kennedy said a determination on Cox’s status won’t be made for another 10 days or so.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to do what is in Demarco’s best interest,” he said. “Demarco wants to do what’s in the team’s best interest. We’re not to that point yet to make that determination, simply because he has not played, nor do we know how effective he would be playing.”