February 8, 2011 7:53:00 AM
It''s no coincidence why the University of Mississippi men''s basketball team has won two games in a row: Reginald Buckner is playing at a high level.
The sophomore forward has always been lauded for his shot-blocking ability, but the Rebels (15-8, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) haven''t always gotten a complete, foul-free performance from him.
Last week against the University of Kentucky, the light bulb came on.
In need of a major spark after losing five of their first six league games, Buckner had 12 points, three steals, and five blocked shots in a 71-69 win against the Wildcats.
Buckner came just two blocks shy of a triple-double Saturday against Arkansas, finishing with 11 points, 12 rebounds, and eight blocks. He was 5 of 5 from the floor, and is 14 of 21 in the past three games.
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey, who has a talented shot blocker of his own in Delvon Robinson, said Buckner displayed an uncanny knack for timing his block attempts Saturday.
"We tried to get in there and go at him a little bit," Pelphrey said Monday during the SEC coaches'' teleconference. "From a help-defender standpoint, he was tremendous. His shot blocking was late; It was almost the last second. When you thought you had a bucket, he was able to get in there."
Buckner played 32 minutes against Kentucky, the most he''d played since logging 33 against East Tennessee State on Dec. 18.
Keeping Buckner out of foul trouble has been a challenge for Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who has seen his defensive regulator log less than 20 minutes in six games this season. Buckner has finished nine straight games with four fouls or more, and 16 total this season.
"I think his focus has probably never been better," Kennedy said of Buckner. "We sometimes forget a lot of responsibility has been put on Reg, and he''s still a 19-year-old sophomore who''s still figuring things out.
"His awareness has been better, and, as a result, I think it''s helped his timing, his conditioning, and our team."
Kennedy said Buckner''s revival has given the Rebels "new-found life" ahead of Wednesday''s home game against LSU (10-13, 3-5).
"The thing I''m most proud of is he''s become more resilient," Kennedy said. "He hasn''t given in as quickly."
Wednesday''s game starts at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast by CSS.
The Rebels travel Saturday to SEC overall leader Alabama for a 3 p.m. tip.
UT''s Pearl returns to bench
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has missed the past eight SEC games due to a league-mandated suspension for NCAA rules violations.
With his Volunteers sitting second in the SEC East, he''ll make a more comfortable return to the sideline at 8 tonight at Kentucky.
Pearl even joked SEC Commissioner Mike Slive added extra insult to the eight-game suspension by marking his return against the rival Wildcats.
He wasn''t as jovial about the lessons learned from misleading investigators looking into allegations he''d improperly hosted a recruit.
Pearl was docked $1.5 million in the next five years and banned from off-campus recruiting.
"(I learned) just to make sure I never run afoul of the rules or if I''m ever involved in an investigation to never compromise," Pearl said.
The Volunteers didn''t falter while Pearl was serving his suspension. UT went 5-3 in league play and excelled under assistant coach Tony Jones.
Pearl said his return won''t shake up the team, but provide a boost in depth similar to a player returning from injury.
He thinks his suspension has given Jones an audition for other programs looking for a head coach at the end of the season.
"Tony Jones has gotten more visibility and publicity in case anybody was worried if he can handle things from the bench," Pearl said. "He can handle it. I''m very proud of him, and I hope this is the opportunity that can help kick-start his career as a head coach."
Releford named SEC Freshman of the Week
Playing point guard in an upper-tier conference is hard enough.
Doing so as a freshman is even more difficult.
Somehow, Alabama point guard Trevor Releford just keeps getting better.
Releford was named SEC Freshman of the Week after helping lead Alabama to wins against Mississippi State and Tennessee last week.
He scored 16 points and had a career-high eight assists and four steals against MSU. His assists led to 20 points, while his steals turned into four points. In all, he accounted for 40 of Alabama''s 75 points.
Against the Volunteers, Releford shot 50 percent from the field and hit a pair of free throws in overtime to clinch Alabama''s third SEC road win of the season.
"I think Trevor''s done a very good job for us and what''s been asked for him in our league," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "He''s handled it extremely well. He''s one of the best young guards in the league, if not the country.
"He is very poised and confident in how he can impact our team. I think our team has gained more confidence in what he brings to the table and how he fits with the other guys."
Alabama (15-7, 7-1) will play at 8 p.m. Thursday at No. 23 Vanderbilt (16-6, 4-4).