Despite producing five 20-plus win seasons and NIT appearances in his first six seasons at the helm in Oxford, head coach Andy Kennedy has not yet earned the Rebels a bid to the Big Dance.
Given a seventh season, and opportunity, by Ole Miss Athletics Director Ross Bjork in 2012-13, Kennedy now has his best shot ever to finally quiet his critics.
With a defining win against a then-No. 10-ranked Missouri Tiger team last week followed up with a dramatic come-from-behind win against a scrappy Vanderbilt team on the road this week, Kennedy’s Rebels now control their own March Madness destiny.
Led by the National Junior College Player of the Year in 2011-12 and currently the SEC’s leading scorer at 19.1 points per game, gritty point guard Marshall Henderson, the Rebels are on the fast track to success.
Currently at 14-2 overall and 3-0 in league play (RPI: 45, SOS: 170), fifteen conference games now stand between the upstart Rebels and a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
While Ole Miss (14-2, 3-0), Florida (12-2, 2-0) and new additions Texas A&M (12-3, 2-0) and Missouri (12-3, 1-1) all sport records well above .500, usually successful programs like Kentucky (11-5, 2-1), Mississippi State (7-7, 2-0), and Vanderbilt (6-9, 0-3) are off to sluggish starts.
However, the conference season is still young, with 15 games remaining for each of the 14 programs between now and the start of the SEC Tournament in Nashville beginning March 13.
The way I see it, there are two things that need to happen to truly secure Kennedy and his Rebels their first NCAA bid since former coach Rod Barnes led Ole Miss to the promised land in 2002.
First, keep winning.
Specifically, win the ones you’re supposed to, and gain another couple of quality-level wins against teams with decent RPI’s. That would mean winning against either Kentucky (at home, Jan 29th), Florida (on the road, Feb 2nd) or Texas A&M (on the road, Feb 13th or at home, Feb 27th). It’s quite possible to win two or three of these four games.
As I see it, the Rebels need to win at least 10 of their final 15 conference games to absolutely “punch” their ticket to the big dance.
By winning 10 of their final 15 games in the expanded conference slate, the Rebels would finish the regular season with a record of 24 - 7 (13-5 in conference play) even before the SEC Tournament. That would set them up as probably a No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Second, Kennedy needs some of his SEC coaching counterparts to begin picking up the slack for fellow teams fighting for postseason bids. Teams like Ole Miss need to see opponents' RPIs rise as the season goes on to bolster their tournament resumes.
There’s no doubt about it, the SEC is having the type of “down year” in men’s basketball it hasn’t seen in a while. That being said, the importance of fellow conference members’ records as the season progresses simply can’t be stressed enough.
It will only help the Rebels’ chances of earning an NCAA bid, if a few other league members can get on the winning track and find themselves in position for at least an NIT bid themselves.
So, what will happen for the Rebels as the season shakes out between now and the end of the regular season March 9th on the road against rival, LSU?
The fact is this 2012-13 Rebel squad has more talent than any has had since the 2001 Rebels marched their way to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to eventual NCAA Champion, Arizona.
Further, the men’s basketball team hasn’t won an SEC Conference Tournament since 1981. It’s been a long time coming, but Kennedy has this year’s team poised to make a real run not only in the SEC Tournament, but also the NCAA Tournament.
Prediction: Ole Miss Rebels (24-7, 13-5) - Regular Season
SEC Tournament: 2 wins, 1 loss (Championship Game)
Final Tournament Resume: 26-8
No. 8 seed in NCAA Tournament (advancing to the Sweet 16)
Follow @SephTheRebel for Ole Miss news from an Ole Miss guy …