Marshall Henderson and the Ole Miss Rebels (18-4, 7-2 SEC) are currently tied with Kentucky for second place in the SEC, as the Rebels look to close out their remaining conference games strong before looking to the SEC tournament.
Finishing regular-season conference play on a high note is crucial for Ole Miss before entering conference tournament play. In the expanded 14-team SEC. the format of the 2013 SEC basketball tournament will be slightly different than in the past.
With the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M, making the conference now comprised of 14 institutions, the four teams at the bottom of the SEC standings at the end of the regular season now must play first round games on the Wednesday of tournament week. In the prior year's 12 team league, the first round of postseason tournament games didn't begin until a Thursday rather than a Wednesday.
The new tournament format in the expanded conference simply makes it harder for the 11, 12, 13 and 14-seed teams (Auburn, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina respectively as of Feb. 7) to advance very far in the tournament. These seeds would have to win five games in five straight days to win the conference tournament championship. That's a tall task for even the best of teams.
Fortunately for Andy Kennedy's Rebels, they will finish nowhere close to the bottom of the conference. However, exactly where they fall in the tournament seeds will make a huge difference in their potential to make a run at taking home the crown.
Currently at 7-2 in the SEC heading into the rematch against Missouri February 9, Ole Miss has nine conference games left to try and finish regular-season conference play as one of the top four schools. Teams that finish one, two, three and four receive byes in the first two rounds of the SEC Tournament, making the road to a tournament championship game appearance (Sunday of tournament week) far less difficult. Should Kennedy's Rebels finish as one of the top four SEC clubs at the end of the regular season, their march to an SEC tournament title would only require wining three games.
Coach Billy Donovan's Florida Gators will most likely win the regular-season SEC title, as long as they don't play like they did at Arkansas (L 80-69) anymore. If the Gators finish on top, then Ole Miss would need to finish either second, third or fourth prior to the conference tournament.
The main teams in the mix to finish second, third or fourth are Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama and Missouri. Kentucky is currently tied with the Rebels for second in the SEC standings at 7-2. Alabama sits at 6-3 in SEC play, while Missouri is a game further back at 5-4. After their upcoming game on the road at Missouri, Ole Miss will only play Alabama out of these teams in the hunt in their final eight games. Without question, Kennedy's squad controls their own destiny the rest of the way in hopes of landing a coveted top four seed in the SEC tournament.
There is a vast difference between having to play four games in four days versus only requiring three games in three days to make a run at an SEC tournament championship, and Andy Kennedy is well aware of what's at stake for his club as they close out the regular season.
Ole Miss posted a 7-2 mark in the first half of conference play. There is little reason to believe Marshall Henderson, Murphy Holloway and the Rebels can't go at least 6-3 in their final nine conference games, likely earning Ole Miss a top seed and bye all the way to Friday's quarterfinals.
Expect the Rebels to finish third in the conference at the end of the regular season, earning their pass to the quarterfinals. At that point, I like Ole Miss' chances to win three games in three days.