Similarities to pose problems for Cats, Rebels
Wildcat fans shouldn't feel guilty for not knowing much about the Mississippi basketball team. Richard Jefferson is as clueless as most of the UA faithful.
When approached by the media during yesterday's press conference in McKale Center, the junior forward was blunt.
"I don't know anything about Ole Miss," he said, attempting to avoid questions about the team the Wildcats will face Friday at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Jefferson might know more than he thinks. All he has to do is watch film of this year's Arizona team, a squad that resembles the Rebels more than most people realize.
"It won't be a difficult preparation for them or for us," UA head coach Lute Olson said yesterday. "We face (Mississippi's style of play) every day."
Both UA and the Rebels have undersized point guards, dominant power forwards, "run and gun" offensive styles and defense that stifled opponents over the weekend in Kansas City, Mo.
The Little General
Start with Ole Miss' point guard, Jason Harrison - the Rebels' version of Jason Gardner. Harrison, a junior from Little Rock, Ark., has been a steady force in the Rebels' backcourt since walking on campus two years ago.
Oh yeah, Harrison is listed at 5-foot-5, a dwarf by basketball standards. Not that it bothers him or Mississippi's coach, Rod Barnes.
"Size is the most overrated thing in basketball," Barnes said in a conference call yesterday afternoon. "This guy has proven that he can play in this league. It's mind-boggling that people continue to say things. Two years ago, he hit a shot over (former Michigan State point guard) Mateen Cleaves."
So far this season, the diminutive Harrison is averaging just over seven points and three assists, statistics that worry UA head coach Lute Olson.
"It's not how big you are, it's how big you play," he said yesterday. "He reminds me a little bit of (current Toronto Raptors' point guard) Muggsy Bogues. He just drove people nuts when he was on the collegiate level at Wake (Forest)."
Harrison - who was taunted by Notre Dame's leprechaun mascot during the Rebels' 59-56 win against the Fighting Irish Sunday - said he's heard it all and isn't bothered by remarks made about his size.
"I don't worry about what other people say," he said. "I'm happy if I help my team win."
The Big Man
When watching Ole Miss forward Rahim Lockhart, it's hard not to think of UA junior forward Michael Wright. Both are bulky, intense and surprisingly smooth around the basket.
The 6-8 Lockhart might be one inch taller than Wright, but he outweighs the junior easily. So far, the UA basketball team hasn't faced a big man with any dominant talent.
Butler center Scott Robicsh scored just two points and was held without a rebound in Sunday's 73-52 win, while Eastern Illinois - the team UA beat Friday in Kansas City's Kemper Arena - was without a true inside presence.
Wright said he is awaiting the task despite going mostly unchallenged in the tournament's first two rounds.
"He's a big one," Wright said yesterday. "I know I've got a lot on my hands coming into Friday's game. I enjoy the physical play, so I expect he and I to have a big battle down low."
In order to shut down Ole Miss, UA will have to shut down Lockhart.
The Rebels are 8-0 when Lockhart - who was named first-team all-Southeastern Conference - logs a double-double.
Run and Gun
Olson said the Wildcats are already prepared for the style of play that Ole Miss will bring to San Antonio Friday. Both UA and Mississippi run motion-oriented offensive sets, which rely less on play-calling and more on getting open for an uncontested shot or mismatch.
"There's not a lot of set plays, so it's not a case of a difficult preparation for us in terms of what they do," he said. "It's not the number of things that we had to prepare for with Butler. They're good athletes; they all play very hard."
Over the weekend, the Rebels were led by the play of sophomore guard Emmanuel Wade and senior guard Jason Flanigan.
The two guards combined to score 22 points in Friday's 72-70 win against Iona.
Both UA's and Ole Miss' style of offense allows different players to score at different times. Neither team has a traditional "go-to" player.
"I think they prefer to play at a fairly fast pace, which we would prefer over a lot of half-court stuff," Olson said. "It should be an interesting game. We're not going to come out and hold the ball."
When Ole Miss can shoot the ball well, they often win.
In late-season victories against Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, the Rebels won by posting a higher shooting percentage than their opponents.
In the team's last loss, a 77-55 defeat at the hands of Kentucky, the Rebels shot just .29 percent from the field.
"If we can shoot 45 percent from the floor (against Arizona), that's good enough for us to win," Barnes said. "We have been a team have made shots and a team that hasn't made shots. I think we can hit the shots to win the game."
"It's too late to be concerned about our shots," he said. "We will get the same looks against Arizona, and we have to knock those shots down."
Defense Wins Championships
Of all the similarities between the two teams, defense stands out.
Both the Wildcats and Rebels have turned heads so far in the NCAA Tournament by playing stifling defensive basketball. UA held Butler to just 52 points and a 39 percent shooting percentage in Sunday's 72-53 win, while Ole Miss managed to hold the Irish to a 29 percent mark from the field.
Both UA and the Rebels use man-to-man defensive pressure to spark a high-octane, open style of offense.
"They score a lot of points, but that's because of their defense," Olson said. "They play similarly (to Arizona) in terms of defense - they're tough on the ball, pressure (the offense and run) a lot of man-to-man, full-court stuff."
Lockhart said that the team's newly discovered desire to play defense has helped lead to the team's two NCAA Tournament wins.
"Looking at all the great teams that have played, most of the time they were great defensive teams," he said. "Now ... it's so much into shooting and scoring, (but) that's the easiest part."
"Experiences in my life and great teams have helped me develop my philosophy," he said. "You see the dunking and blocked shots in the stands. Teams that have been sucessful have played great defense. It may not sell tickets, but it wins championships.
"If a kid can play defense, you can help your team win. I think I have been influenced by many people who stress defense. If you can do anything, you can play defense."
So can the Wildcats - and that's what will make Friday's matchup so interesting.