Ole Miss has been in and out of the Associated Press Top 25 this season.
No. 15 South Carolina just entered the poll for the first time since 2017.
The regrouping Rebels (18-5, 5-4 SEC) and the surging Gamecocks (19-3, 7-2 SEC) will meet Tuesday night in Columbia, S.C.
“We’re top 20 in my opinion, but we don’t really care about it,” South Carolina freshman forward Collin Murray-Boyles said before learning the team entered the poll Monday. “We play with a chip on our shoulders the whole time. So wherever they put us, we’re going to play no different.”
South Carolina has played as well as anyone in the SEC during its five-game winning streak. It has victories against Top 10 opponents Kentucky and Tennessee during the run.
The Gamecocks already have won eight more games than they did last season, making a trip to the NCAA tourney a far more realistic possibility than it was at the start of the season.
“We’ve talked about the NCAA Tournament, and we’re halfway through the league,” head coach Lamont Paris said. “It’s a goal of ours. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not something out there that we want to do.”
South Carolina has prided itself on team efforts all season and the team had 25 assists on 29 field goals in a 72-62 victory at Georgia on Saturday.
“I think it’s a byproduct of them trusting and believing in what we say,” Paris said. “It’s a byproduct of them being unselfish guys by nature, a byproduct of them all really being guys that want to win.”
Ole Miss didn’t receive any Top 25 votes in the preseason poll, but played its way into the rankings twice before falling out again. The Rebels won three games in a row to get back on the poll voters’ radar and held a nine-point halftime lead at home against then-No. 16 Auburn last Saturday.
But Auburn dominated the second half, outscoring Ole Miss 56-33 and shooting 73.3 percent from the floor to hand the Rebels their first home loss of the season 91-77.
“Our on-ball defense was not where it needed to be in the second half,” coach Chris Beard said. “Our rim protection wasn’t where it needed to be, and then our drops, our rotations. You’ve got different layers of defense. There were possessions where we just failed on the first line, first insurance policy, second insurance policy.”
Beard said he wasn’t happy with his team’s “mental toughness” in terms of trying to fight through fatigue.
“When guys get fatigued, we get guys at the scorer’s table, we can’t just stop the game,” said Beard, who has set an NCAA bid as a reasonable expectation for his first Rebels team. “And so I thought we had multiple players just take plays off when they appeared to be physically tired.”
Beard credited Auburn for being the better conditioned team and the Tigers’ superior depth enhanced the Rebels’ fatigue problem. Auburn’s bench outscored the Rebels’ reserves 36-8, including 24-0 after halftime.
After facing South Carolina, Ole Miss has a trip to No. 17 Kentucky looming Feb. 13.
–Field Level Media
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