Breein Tyree

Breein Tyree provides scoring punch, but Ole Miss needs better focus on defense.

NASHVILLE Ole Miss and Georgia will fight to extend their seasons tonight, one of two games in the pre-party to the first major day of play in the SEC Tournament.

It’s a 6 p.m. tip for the Rebels and Bulldogs (15-16, 5-13 SEC) at Bridgestone Arena with Vanderbilt and Arkansas to follow. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.

Ole Miss and Georgia are both in the second year of a rebuilding phase after hiring nationally prominent coaches Kermit Davis and Tom Crean, respectively, into the SEC a year ago.

Davis led Ole Miss (15-16, 6-12 SEC) on a surprising run to the NCAA Tournament in his first season but faces the prospect of a losing season in his second.

It took three seasons of struggle before Bruce Pearl got Auburn rolling. Now the Tigers, a No. 2 seed in Nashville, are 36-18 over the last three seasons and are about to make their third-straight NCAA appearance. They reached the Final Four last year.

His first three Auburn teams went 4-14, 5-13 and 7-11 in SEC play.

“We established that we were going to play hard, compete, and even though we didn’t win much, the thing you have to focus on is the way you want to play,” Pearl said. “It’s about culture, competitiveness. It’s not really about style. We tweak style based on personnel. It’s about training, about serving in the community, compliance … all the different things you have to do to point your program in a positive direction.

“The winning will take care of itself if you can improve the talent and maintain a good culture.”

Davis’ first Middle Tennessee team went 9-5 in Sun Belt Conference play. His next four teams went 8-6, 7-7, 8-6, 8-10.

It was Davis’ sixth season at Middle Tennessee before the Blue Raiders had double-digit conference wins. They went on to win at least 10 conference games in 10 of his last 11 seasons in Murfreesboro.

In Year 2 at Ole Miss the Rebels started 1-7 in conference play. There were close games and stinkers, and they were never able to get their legs back for a serious shot at postseason.

“We were picked eighth or ninth in most polls, not picked to win it. We lost a really, really good player, and like a lot of teams we didn’t have the ability to close out games on the road,” Davis said. “We had some freshmen who I still think will be really good players, but they were not ready to impact Power Five and SEC games.”

Ole Miss won 70-60 at Georgia on Jan. 25, the Rebels’ only road win of the season.

They were 6-5 on the road year when Terence Davis, now with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, was part of the team.

Georgia, led by freshman Anthony Edwards’ 19.5 points a game, went 1-2 at neutral sites, 2-9 on the road.

The Bulldogs went through a late February stretch of three wins in four games – the victories against Auburn, Vanderbilt and Arkansas – before losing their last two by 14 at home to Florida and by 30 at LSU.

“With everything that’s happened we’re still five or six possessions away from being in the same situation we were last year,” Davis said. “We have to keep building, keep fighting.”

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

Twitter: @parrishalford

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