Welcome, you illustrious Rebels, to the real world.
Ole Miss was 13-0 and nationally ranked when it arrived at Food City Center on Saturday evening. A Tennessee flurry just before halftime created a nine-point deficit.
The Volunteers overwhelmed the visitors in the second half and inflicted a 90-64 knockout in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference scramble. The mismatch was a delightful treat for the sellout crowd of 21,932. It must have been shocking to Mississippi.
Object lesson: Life in the big league is different from those nice, gentle warmup games against Alabama State, Eastern Washington and Detroit Mercy.
Fifth-ranked Tennessee may have actually looked like the fifth best team in the country. The defense was smothering. Rebounders went hell-bent for the ball and won that contest, 47-24. Jonas Aidoo, supposedly limited by a gimpy leg muscle, ran circles around two taller Rebels, scored 24 and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Zakai Zeigler set a record with this sixth double-double, 17 points, 10 assists and five rebounds as a bonus.
It was an out-behind-the-woodshed whipping for the Rebels.
Ole Miss coach Chris Beard said something that sounded like “Wow!”
“This Tennessee team is really good … I think they’re a Final Four contender.
“They have experience, size, great point guard play. They have an identity, that’s their defense and rebounding. And offensively, they just have a lot of weapons. They can play a lot of different ways. So really, really impressed with them.”
Beard saw the difference in the two halves. The second part was bad.
“They were more physical than us, more competitive than us. They executed a lot better than we did. Really just kicked us in the second half.
“A lot of respect for Tennessee. There’s no doubt about it, that’s one of the best teams in college basketball. They definitely handled us.”
The coach heard the noise.
“This was my first SEC game. I was very impressed with the crowd. It’s a great, great basketball venue. Super impressed with everything about this place.”
Tennessee had an early 12-0 run and built an 18-6 lead. The Rebels survived that surprise, scored nine in a row and appeared competitive. The Vols missed 11 of their first 12 three-point shots but hit four in a row in the three minutes before intermission.
Ziggy got one, Santiago Vescovi got one and Jahmai Mashack threw in two, the second just before the buzzer. That made it 40-31. The Rebels thought they were still in the game. So said the coach.
Wrong. The rout was about to begin. There was an 11-3 spurt. The gap was 54-36 with 16 minutes remaining. It got worse.
This may have been Tennessee’s best all-around performance in the 14 games. It was outstanding. The defense wouldn’t let the Rebels run their plays. The Vols had no long hitless streaks on offense. They dominated the backboards and hustled after loose balls.
No freshman played.
Rick Barnes said this was Tennessee’s most complete game.
“No doubt. No doubt.”
He said it was more than the effort on defense. He liked the fact that the shooters kept shooting even after they missed a few. He really liked team communications.
“We were at our best. And I’m proud of the effort. The guys, I thought defensively they really worked at it.”
Barnes really liked the pick-and-rolls between Zeigler and Aidoo.
“We can spread people out … Zakai is getting better at getting rid of the ball, feeling the game, and making good passes.”
Barnes said nice things about Mashack.
“I have invested a lot of time in him because I love him to death. He’s totally remade his shot, spent time doing it. I’ve also told him; you don’t have to make a shot. You’re an elite defender.
“I thought he played a terrific game tonight.”
Josiah-Jordan James contributed eight rebounds and eight points. Vescovi scored 11, had four assists and four rebounds. Dalton Knecht scored only eight but didn’t shoot much.
The Vols took most of the fun out of the game for the Rebels’ leading scorer, Matthew Murrell. He was averaging 17 points per game. He scored 11 on three-of-11 shooting.
Next: Tennessee plays at Mississippi State on Wednesday. The Saturday game is at Georgia.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com