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Freeze guides Mississippi to quick turnaround

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Freeze guides Mississippi to quick turnaround

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Hugh Freeze is working his turnaround magic again - this time in the Southeastern Conference.

The unlikely major college head coach, who was leading a high school program less than a decade ago and cobbled together the bulk of his offense by watching college games on his couch, has Mississippi competitive in the SEC and just one win from bowl eligibility.

Ole Miss (5-3, 2-2 SEC) will be about a two-touchdown underdog when it visits No. 7 Georgia (7-1, 5-1) on Saturday, but both sides expect the game to be competitive. That's hard to believe considering the Rebels were in the midst of an embarrassing 16-game SEC losing streak less than a month ago.

``What I see is a team that has a brand new head coach that's brought a lot of energy to the program,'' Georgia coach Mark Richt said. ``A lot of times, you just never know how close you are to winning and breaking through and having success.''

Ole Miss was closer than many thought.

The Rebels won their first SEC game in more than two years against Auburn on Oct. 13 and then got a road win against Arkansas last Saturday. With each successful weekend, the Rebels' confidence has grown, and it's Freeze's unmistakable yet subtle fingerprints that have provided the biggest difference.

The low-key Freeze might be the least surprised person about the turnaround. After all, he's done this before.

The 43-year-old had already engineered remarkable one-year turnarounds at NAIA-level Lambuth (Tenn.) and at Arkansas State before accepting the Ole Miss job.

But both those revivals were done in relative obscurity. This one has been done in the harsh glare that comes with coaching in the nation's best college football conference.

It hasn't fazed him one bit.

The scary part for opponents? The Rebels are just now starting to believe.

``I see confidence growing, but yet their demeanor has stayed workmanlike,'' Freeze said. ``And I think the best teams that I've coached have had that quality. You're very confident, but it doesn't hurt your work ethic and the way you go about your business.''

That's not to say the Rebels still don't have issues.

Quarterback Bo Wallace has been a huge upgrade at quarterback, but still makes too many mistakes, throwing nearly as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (10). The defense is thin and undersized at several spots, and ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in most major categories.

But in more proof that football's a mental game, simply gaining confidence has lifted the Rebels from league laughingstock to respected opponent.

Freeze's roster consists of most of the same players who won just two games last season. They didn't miraculously grow into 300-pound monsters or turn into speedsters overnight.

``There is no magic - the magic is in the effort,'' Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke said. ``I think, number one, it's that the players know (Freeze) cares about them and in turn, they want to perform for him and each other. He's a genuine person. He's not scared to take a hard line. If someone misses class, he sits them. There's no wiggle room and kids respect that.''

Ole Miss junior cornerback Charles Sawyer said Freeze's egalitarian system has been a welcome change.

``He holds everyone accountable, and I mean from the star players to the scout team,'' Sawyer said. ``When you have a scout team guy, a star offensive player and an assistant coach all held to the same standard, it really produces a lot of respect.''

Freeze shrugs when asked how he builds that quick rapport with his players.

``It's the only way I know how to coach,'' Freeze said. ``That's who I am.''

Freeze's wide-open offense has also been a boost for the Rebels.

Unlike many major college coaches, who count a long list of legends as their mentors, Freeze developed most of his philosophy when he was a high school coach in Memphis, Tenn. He would comb through taped college games and write down plays that appealed to him in a notebook.

Some of it was Oklahoma and some of it was Oregon. He gained respect for guys like Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin in the process, coaches known for their ability to put points on the board in bunches.

Ten years later, he's turned those plays into a coherent offense.

Can it work in the SEC? It's early, but it certainly appears so.

``Everything that's going on now, it's not a surprise,'' Sawyer said. ``I felt this team was going to be different. Now that it's actually happening, you're not surprised, you're just appreciative.''

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AP Sports Writer Charles Odum contributed to this report from Athens, Ga.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

After two games, it looks like Michal Kempny is already moving up in the lineup.

At Sunday’s practice, Kempny played on the team's second defensive pairing, lining up on the left of John Carlson. Previously, the Czech defenseman had been playing on the right of Brooks Orpik. The move to the left allows him to play on his natural side as he is a left-handed shot.

Here are the pairs from Sunday’s practice:

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
Jakub Jerabek – Madison Bowey

Acquired on Monday from the Chicago Blackhawks, Kempny has played in two games for the Capitals and has received glowing reviews thus far.

“He's a really good pro, that's what sticks out,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He takes care of himself, he works at his game off the ice and with the guys, he has fit in very well.”

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“I've gotten to play a little bit with [Kempny] the last couple games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think he's a guy that, he moves pretty well and he moves the puck pretty well and likes to keep things pretty simple. He's very consistent and predictable so he's very easy to play with.”

When the Capitals first acquired Kempny, it seemed like the best fit for him would be alongside Carlson. It’s a natural fit with Kempny being a left-shot and Carlson a righty. It also bumps down Christian Djoos to a third-pair role which is preferable to having a rookie in the top-four come the playoffs.

Should Kempny play well with Carlson, that would likely solidify Washington’s top two pairs. The Orlov-Niskanen pair was not going to be changed and Carlson was going to be on the second pair. The only question was who would ultimately play with him in the postseason?

The third pair, however, remains a work in progress.

The Caps will have to wait at least another day for the debut of their second recent acquisition as Jakub Jerabek cannot yet play due to visa issues and will miss Monday's game, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Considering the issues Washington has had on defense, they would not have brought in another defenseman just to be a healthy scratch. He will get his shot to earn a spot in the lineup.

With two new defensemen in tow, obviously the team will need to experiment over the next few days and weeks to find the right combinations.

“We're going to have to probably spend at least the next 10 to 12 games doing that and then we'll have to sort of settle in,” Trotz said. “With eight defenseman, you sort of want to see which guys you’re going to play and who to play as partners and sort of a little bit of ranking. If someone goes down, who's filling that extra role?”

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

The Big South conference had a surprising start to their league play this year with preseason favorites UNC-Asheville and Winthrop losing two of their first three games.  Since, things have settled down in the Big South with those two squads separating themselves from the pack late in the season.

This 2017-18 season, the Big South is a single bid conference but does have opportunities to get a couple of teams into the NIT. Depending on how this tournament plays out, there may be two or three teams in the second biggest tournament in the country.

READ MORE: NCAA TOURNAMENT BUBBLE WATCH

Like always the tournament will be hosted at multiple sites. The first round will be on campus-sites with the No.7 and No. 8 teams hosting their respective games. From there, the remaining teams will head to Asheville, NC for two rounds as the Bulldogs earned the No. 1 seed. The highest remaining team will then host the championship game.

Home-court advantage will clearly be a factor for which ever team hosts, but it has also been a theme of the Big South. Combined, the entire conference is 88-38 at their home court. Only Liberty has a winning record on the road at 5-4. The host of the quarterfinals and semifinals, UNC-Asheville, is 13-1 at Kimmel Arena. The lone loss being against Liberty.

Only one year in this format, Winthrop won the championship in 2016-17 as the hosts.

TOURNAMENT INFORMATION:

When is the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be Tues. Feb 27, March 1-2, and the Big South championship is on March 4.

Where is the Big South Tournament?
The Big South tournament will primarily be hosted at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, North Carolina. The higher seeds will host the first round match-ups. The Big South Championship will also be at the highest seed’s home court.

How to watch the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be televised as a part of ESPN’s family of networks, excluding the first round. The first round can be seen on the Big South Network, the quarterfinals and semifinals will be streamed on ESPN3, and ESPN will televise the Big South Championship.

Who is the defending Big South Champion?

The Winthrop Eagles won the 2016-17 Big South Championship after hosting the main portion of the tournament. It was the Eagles 11th Big South Championship in their history, the most ever in the Big South.

2018 BIG SOUTH TOURNAMENT BRACKET:

First Round – Tuesday, Feb. 27

No. 9 Presbyterian at No. 8 Charleston Southern 7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)
No. 10 Longwood at No. 7 High Point                     7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)

Quarterfinals - Thursday, March 1

7/10 Winner vs. No. 2 Radford                     1:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 6 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 3 Winthrop   3:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
8/9 Winner at No. 1 UNC Asheville              7:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 5 Liberty vs. No. 4 Campbell                  9:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Semifinals - Friday, March 2

TBD vs. TBD                          6:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
TBD vs. TBD                          8:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Big South Championship - Sunday, March 4

TBD vs. TBD                          1:00pm, higher seed host (ESPN)

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PREVIEW:

Even as the No. 3 seed and losers of their last two games, Winthrop is probably still the favorite heading into the tournament. Their offense is one of the highest scoring in all of college basketball (80.7 ppg), with Xavier Cooks scoring 17.6 ppg (3rd in Big South). However, the Eagles’ offense is not powered entirely behind three-point shooting, it is done with balance on both sides of the ball. They have the best two-point shooting percentage in the league (47.3 percent), lead the Big South in rebounding averages, blocks, and field goal defense. In addition, their guards’ three point shooting ability is pretty good too at 37.5 percent and making 9.5 deep balls a game.

However, when they go quiet from long range or another team matches their three-point shooting for a contest, they are susceptible. Also as defending champs, they have been here before and are motivated to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

As the Big South tournament hosts, UNC Asheville will have a leg up on the competition, but they have not been as dominant as a top seed should be. The Bulldogs are one of the most consistent teams in the conference with all five starters scoring in double figures each game. If one is betting, they are the safe bet to win it all based on what is mentioned above.

While Radford was a pleasant surprise throughout league play, do not anticipate that they will be a contender. They are eighth in scoring in the conference (68.2) and around the same mark when it comes to shooting. Their defense has bailed them out as probably one of the top defensive units in the league, but their leading scorer is a post player, Ed Polite Jr.  (13.6 ppg) and if shut down in the paint, there is no offense.

Liberty is the darkhorse in the Big South Tournament. The do boast the best defensive numbers in the conference (64.0 points against per game) and have a high-powered offense, although it is spotty.  Two players are shooting well above 40 percent or better from behind the arc. Dominating the boards, they limit other team’s second chance opportunities. Do not bet against the Flames in a one-on-one contest.

PICK: No. 3 Winthrop