March 24, 2008

Rebels host Nebraska in NIT round two

All year long, Dwayne Curtis' been asked to play a little out of character. A number of versatile big men have come into Oxford, pulling the Rebel big man away from the rim.

With post players of Curtis' ilk hard to find, the Ole Miss senior has had to step out and defend.

"The things he's done this year he couldn't have done last year" senior Kenny Williams said. "Coach used to say he couldn't move his feet and get over for rotations."

While Curtis has shown the ability to defend around the perimeter, in the second round of the NIT Monday night at 8 against Nebraska he won't have to.

Nebraska will come to Oxford's Tad Smith Coliseum with a 6-foot-11, 275-pound weapon that'll keep Curtis plenty busy in the paint.

Aleks Maric, a second-team All-Big 12 player, leads the Cornhuskers (20-12) in scoring (15.7 points) and rebounding (10.2).

"Maric is as good of a post player as we've seen all year," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "They run all of their offense through him.

"(Alabama's) Richard Hendrix is probably the most physical player DC's gone against, and Maric is a bigger version."

And even with Curtis giving up a few inches to the Australian big man, he's happy to defending a little closer to home.

"It puts me in my comfort zone, down in the paint," he said. "I enjoy that."

Curtis and the Rebels answered some questions pertaining to the team's commitment to winning, considering the Rebels (22-10) were left at home on Selection Sunday.

"I was concerned going into the game, not knowing what the mindset would be," Kennedy said. "I think they competed well."

Ole Miss took care of UC Santa Barbara in the opening round, while Nebraska defeated Charlotte at home.

In addition to Maric, the Cornhuskers play a very small lineup, using mostly guards to compliment their big man. The unique mix has produced one of the nation's top defenses, allowing just 59.9 points per game.

"It's a grind-it-out, very tough kind of a team," Kennedy said. "They defend you a lot like Kentucky, which held us to four points for about 16 minutes. That's not very comforting.

"They'll fight you."

But the Rebels showed, NIT or NCAA Tournament, they're still fighting.

"We're playing for the seniors," Chris Warren said. "It's their last time in the gym in college before they move on. We're trying to make the best of it for them because when we get into that situation, I want young guys to do the same thing.

"We still have goals. Hopefully, we won't settle. We showed that we want to play."

Williams said he wouldn't let the team take its foot off the gas until after the NIT Championship in New York City.

"We make them play for us," Williams said. "I told them to just stick it out to April 3, then they can have all the free time they want."

Sophomore David Huertas, who's elevated his game, said the team's got plenty left in the tank and all the reason in the world to keep playing hard.

"We're still disappointed we didn't make the tournament, but we're here," Huertas said. "Why not?"

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