January 16, 2008

Rebels face new-look Gators

Last season when the Florida Gators stepped on the floor as defending national champions, it carried a ton of weight.

There was Joakim Noah's long hair, Al Horford's sheer power, Cory Brewer's versatility, Taurean Green's scoring and Lee Humphrey's range.

And after winning a second national championship, those players are either gone to the NBA or graduated, giving the team a major facelift.

The new-look Gators get a crack at No. 15 Ole Miss at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Tad Smith Coliseum.

While the faces might not be the same, Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said he's still watched the Gators (15-2, 2-0 SEC) win ballgames.

"It's certainly a different cast of characters. Most of the guys who won two national championships are off to a different land, but this team is still a very good team," he said. "They still have Billy Donovan, who has put himself in a pretty elite category as far as program building is concerned. They're playing a real young group."

Led by freshman guard Nick Calathes (15.2 points per game), sophomore forward Marreese Speights (14.0 ppg) and freshman guard Jai Lucas (9.9 ppg), Florida's already won at Alabama before downing Auburn in Gainesville.

"I'm impressed," Ole Miss senior Dwayne Curtis said.

Calathes provides the biggest matchup challenge. At 6-foot-5, Calathes can shoot, score, rebound and pass.

Kennedy said Eniel Polynice could spend plenty of time tracking the former McDonald's All-American.

"I think it will be a good matchup," Kennedy said. "Calathes is a little like Chris Warren where he's not getting the national notice like some of the other freshman, but he's been as valuable to Florida as Chris has been to us.

"I'd hate to see where we are without Chris to this point."

With Warren, the Rebels responded to a tough loss at Tennessee with a three-point win over LSU. Against the Tigers, Ole Miss (14-1, 1-1) squandered a 22-point second half lead.

Curtis said Ole Miss' veterans need to take responsibility to make sure a collapse like that doesn't happen again.

"We broke down the film, and we did a lot of talking about what we need to be doing mentally," he said. "It's especially about the leaders and how we need to talk to the freshmen and get on each other about finishing."

However, the Rebel frontcourt could be without senior Jermey Parnell, who is doubtful with a high ankle sprain.

Kennedy said he was surprised watching his team struggle in the last minute against LSU.

"I thought we were beyond it honestly," he said. "If you put yourself in that position, dangerous things can happen."

If the Rebels struggle against Florida, it won't be for lack of effort. Sophomore David Huertas transferred from Florida, and he's excited to get a crack at his old team.

Huertas left after his freshman season.

"The main point was playing time," he said. "When I knew Cory Brewer, Lee Humphrey and everyone was coming back, I didn't want to waste another year sitting on the bench.

"But, it's been great. I like it here. I like my teammates and my coaches."

Huertas has struggled in the Rebels' SEC contests, and he said he just needs to settle in.

"I've been through it, but my freshman year, I didn't play like I wanted to," Huertas said. "I feel like a freshman out there. I'm playing right now; it's new to me."

While Huertas is adjusting to an increased role, the Rebels have had to deal with the increased scrutiny - attention that comes with winning.

And when Ole Miss takes the floor Wednesday night, the Rebels will be expected to take care of business.

"It's amazing how quickly expectations change," he said. "No one thought twice about Ole Miss two weeks ago."

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