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Florida starts key home stretch for Rebels

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy wants the focus to be on the court Saturday, not the sidelines.

Yes, first-year Florida coach Michael White will return to Oxford in an attempt to beat his former boss in Kennedy and the team he used to play for when the Gators take on Ole Miss at the Pavilion (7 p.m., ESPN2), but what transpires among the players on each side over the course of 40 minutes will be the bigger storyline as it pertains to the teams’ postseason outlook.

“Moreso, this is Florida versus Ole Miss,” Kennedy said. “One-on-one, Mike was a good player. I still like my chances, but the reality now is it’s Florida versus Ole Miss.”

For Ole Miss (12-4, 2-2 Southeastern Conference), it’s the start of what the Rebels need to be a good 72-hour stretch in their new digs if they want to start building a serious resume for the NCAA Tournament.

Ole Miss, fresh off a loss at LSU on Wednesday, is No. 62 in the NCAA’s latest RPI rankings with a chance to snatch back-to-back top-50 RPI wins. Their only one came against Alabama (42), but Florida (10-6, 2-2) will come to town with an RPI of 27.

After that is another home date Tuesday with No. 19 South Carolina, which is ranked No. 28 in the RPI after winning its first 15 games of the season. It’s a pair of opportunities, Kennedy said, the Rebels have to seize with the help of what’s been an electric home crowd so far at the Pavilion, which had nearly 19,000 fans watch Ole Miss’ first two games there — both wins.

“The energy has been tremendous,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to need that energy because you’ve got to protect your home floor.”

The Gators will bring in the SEC’s top scoring defense (63.9 points allowed per game) to try to slow down Ole Miss’ Stefan Moody, who’s scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games. Senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith is Florida’s top scorer (13.4 points per game) and rebounder (7.6 per game) while South Florida transfer John Egbunu is averaging 10.8 points and 6.5 boards at center.

“They’ve got a strong, solid post a lot like the young man at Georgia (Yante Maten),” Kennedy said. “They’re a good basketball team.”