Mississippi is well on its way to ending its NCAA tournament drought and in contention for an SEC West title, but a difficult stretch of games looms next month.
Before that begins, the 18th-ranked Rebels will try to end January by continuing their home dominance of Arkansas on Sunday night in a game pushed back one day due to inclement weather.
With five weeks remaining in the regular season, Mississippi (16-4, 4-2) has already matched last season’s win total and is off to its best conference start since beginning 6-2 in 2001-02—a season that ended with its previous NCAA tournament appearance.
While the Rebels have a 53-8 home record in Andy Kennedy’s four seasons and are 9-1 this season, they’ve also shown they can thrive away from Oxford. Ole Miss recorded back-to-back conference road wins for the first time in nearly nine years with Thursday night’s 84-74 victory over Auburn.
The Rebels shot 56.7 percent, scored 46 points in the paint and got a combined 53 from their three starting guards—20 from Chris Warren—to move into first place in the West.
“Once we fed the post, we got a good look,” Warren said. “We kept going down there, and they couldn’t stop it so we kept feeding them.”
Ole Miss will try to remain in first place with its fourth straight win over Arkansas and 13th in 14 home matchups since 1996-97.
A win would also give the Rebels some momentum entering February. Among the matchups that month are trips to top-ranked Kentucky and Mississippi State, and a home game against No. 21 Vanderbilt.
Ole Miss will try to take advantage of an Arkansas team that’s dropped 11 in a row away from home dating to last season and 15 consecutive SEC road games since beating LSU on Jan. 26, 2008.
The Razorbacks (9-11, 2-3) have shot 36.1 percent and averaged 65.7 points - nearly 10 below their season average - in three road defeats in 2009-10.
They have split their last four overall, winning 67-62 over Mississippi State on Thursday night.
Sophomore point guard Courtney Fortson’s return from a 14-game suspension has played a part in those two wins.
Fortson, an SEC all-freshman honoree in 2008-09, has averaged a team-best 20.2 points and 6.7 assists in six games this season.
After being hampered by a sore ankle in the first half Thursday, Fortson scored 33 of his career-high 35 points in the final 20 minutes to rally his team from an eight-point deficit.
“I just really let the game come to me,” he said. “In the first half, I had a bad ankle injury and I kind of let that loosen up. When it got loose, I started attacking.”
Fortson scored 24 points in last season’s 74-65 loss in Oxford and 18 in the most recent matchup, a 98-91 overtime defeat at home March 4. Sophomore guard Terrico White led Ole Miss in scoring in both victories, averaging 23.5 points on 53.6 percent shooting.
Arkansas leads the series 40-24, but the Rebels have won 16 of the past 23 meetings.