Photo by University of Mississippi Athletics (@OleMissMBB on X)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn- No. 5 Tennessee (10-3) begins its season with a bout at home against No. 22 Ole Miss (13-0) in Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center Saturday.
Both teams played one common opponent in NC State out of conference. The toughest team the Rebels have taken down to this point is Memphis.
Here are observations on the Rebels from both of those games.
BRAKEFIELD AND MURRELL: VETERAN LEADERSHIP
Guard Matthew Murrell and forward Jaemyn Brakefield have both started each of the last three seasons for the Rebels.
Between the two, Murrell is the more natural scorer, averaging 17 points per game. He was the primary catalyst for the Rebels’ second half comeback win over Memphis, nailing six of his seven three-point attempts.
But Brakefield did some of his best work in the Rebels’ win over NC State, scoring a then career-high 25 points, later to be broken in the Rebels’ win over California weeks later.
Chris Beard attracted several high-profile players to his program via the transfer portal in the offseason. Many of them have been available all season long, but there are some that are just now getting involved for the Rebels
Let’s start with guard Allen Flanigan.
Vol fans are well-acquainted with Flanigan from the four years he spent at Auburn. Flanigan’s father, Wes Flanigan, left the plains to take an assistant role on Chris Beard’s staff, so naturally Allen followed. A capable scorer on all three levels, Flanigan will be one of the Rebels’ most important pieces in SEC play.
Another pickup for the Rebels at guard is Jaylen Murray.
Murray played for the St Peter’s team that took the college basketball world by storm in the 2022 NCAA tournament. Though his role was limited, Murray still saw playing time in 33 games for the Peacocks that season. He and Murrell combined to shoot 11 of 13 from beyond the arc in the Memphis game, so look for Murray to be involved on the perimeter.
They are not related, but guard Brandon Murray is another valuable transfer at guard.
Brandon Murray was part of two different firing exoduses: first at LSU with Will Wade, then last season at Georgetown with Patrick Ewing. He missed both the NC State and Memphis games, but he has seen playing time in the last four contests.
Now to the big men, starting with Western Kentucky transfer Jamarion Sharp.
Sharp’s height of 7-foot-5 is impossible to ignore. But he is nothing like Zach Edey; a great shot blocker, but not the best rebounder and definitely not a scoring threat.
The other big man coming in this season is Oklahoma State transfer Moussa Cisse.
His first action for the Rebels came against Memphis, in which he recorded a dunk and five rebounds. Cisse can block too, recording four blocks in the UCF and Bryant wins.
On the offensive end, it is plain to see the Rebels have natural scorers at guard. Murrell, Flanigan, and Jaylen Murray make the offense go for the Rebels, and they will rely heavily on them in Knoxville.
But at both Texas Tech and Texas, Chris Beard’s teams were known for their defense. Between the Memphis and NC State games, the defensive plays are some of the more eye catching aspects of this Rebels team.
Wolf Pack guard DJ Horne and Wolf Pack forward DJ Burns wreaked havoc on the Vols’ defensive scheme in San Antonio. But the Rebels held Horne and Burns to five point apiece in their 20-point victory.
Horne’s struggles at The Pavilion are easier to diagnose as he lives and dies by the three-point shot. But Burns almost exclusively takes high-percentage shots, and guess who recorded three blocked shots that night? That’s right, Jamarion Sharp.
Sharp did allow for forward Ben Middlebrooks to have a productive first half. But aside from that brief stretch, it was hard for the Wolf Pack to produce down low.
The Memphis win did not feature the same defensive dominance from the Rebels as the NC State win did, but it featured a certain defensive element that could be challenging for the Vols.
The Rebels were constantly forcing the Tigers late into the shot clock, forcing shot clock violations in several instances.
The NC State game did not feature any true weaknesses for the Rebels, but the Memphis game exposed one significant offensive flaw.
Much of the Tigers’ offensive success came as a result of turnovers and the fast break. The Vols have developed a reputation as a nasty defensive team that makes their opponents pay for their turnovers with transition points.
To narrow it down, if Memphis was able to bother the Rebels as much as it did in The Pavilion on the perimeter, imagine how irritating Zakai Zeigler can be against the Rebels in a hostile environment.