Ole Miss is feeling the fallout of Tuesday’s humbling loss to Kentucky quite a bit harder one day later.
In the process of losing their first SEC game of the season, the Rebels lost something far more important to their long-term aspirations than any one conference tilt. Andy Kennedy’s team lost its most indispensable bench player to a season-ending injury.
Reserve forward Aaron Jones is done for the year after tearing the ACL in his left knee during the second half of Tuesday’s game, the school has confirmed. The 6-foot-9 sophomore, who averaged 3.5 points and 4.1 rebounds compiled over 17 minutes per game, was the unsung linchpin of Mississippi’s stout interior defense.
Jones and senior big man Reginald Buckner had formed a fearsome two-man shield around the rim, especially noticeable in conference play until the team’s slugfest against Kentucky. The two defensive enforcers combined for 4.3 blocks per game — Jones averaged 1.6 himself, good for second on the team and fifth in the conference despite limited minutes — and were largely responsible for a team defense that ranked fourth in the SEC in field goal percentage against on shots in the paint.
With Jones out and depth at the forward position few and far between, the Rebels will need to rely on extended minutes from Buckner and Murphy Holloway, the league’s best rebounder for whom staying on the floor consistently has been a challenge. Ole Miss is already without senior starter-turned-reserve guard Nick Williams — who is out indefinitely with a foot injury — which further compromises a rotation that now runs only six-deep.
The SEC is not a forgiving league for teams light on frontcourt depth. Florida owns one of the top frontlines in all of college basketball, while Kentucky proved in Oxford that its assorted cast of young frontcourt players will go blow-for-blow with anybody. Missouri’s one-two punch of Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi, the LSU tag-team of Shavon Coleman and Johnny O’Bryant III and tough frontlines at Tennessee and South Carolina present pressing challenges for Kennedy’s team ahead.
Mississippi has been working to prove its worth to the legions of doubters questioning the team’s success. Now these Rebels will have to work even harder, minus perhaps their biggest workhorse of all.