On Friday, March 22, Andy Kennedy will lead Ole Miss in an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2002. While 11 years was a long wait to dance, even longer was the time it took the Rebels to again be crowned SEC Tournament champions (32 years) after knocking off Florida in the title game.
In the midst of their best season since advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in 2001, Ole Miss (26-8) earned a No. 12 seed and a date with No. 5 seed Wisconsin (23-11) in the West Region.
In the round of 64, Kennedy will square off against one of college basketball's great active coaches: Bo Ryan. Not only is Ryan a perennial winner in the regular season, he's quite fond of March.
ESPN's Keith Lipscomb and Chris Fallica suggested of Ryan's dominance in Madison, WI:
Wisconsin has won at least one game in 10 of its past 11 NCAA tournament appearances, but while the Badgers are never fun for opponents to face, they generally have beaten only the teams they should have under Bo Ryan. They are 15-4 against lower-seeded opponents under Ryan, but just 1-7 against higher seeds (that win coming in 2009 versus Florida State). Of those 16 wins, only three have come against teams seeded better than ninth (all three of which were 5-seeds).
This year Wisconsin will again be playing a lower-seeded opponent, where they're 15-4 under Ryan. In fact, Wisconsin has now earned a seed of six or higher in nine of their past 12 appearances. While the Badgers will be making their fifteenth consecutive trip to the Big Dance, Ole Miss will be making their first appearance in twelve years.
What have the Badgers done in their past two trips to the tournament?
Advanced to the Sweet Sixteen (2011, 2012).
Simply put, experience will beat inexperience when two teams meet.
That being said, the Marshall Henderson-led Rebels are coming into the tilt with loads of confidence. Having won seven of their last eight, Ole Miss is red-hot behind SEC scoring leader Henderson. Whether you love him or hate him, from a mere basketball standpoint there's absolutely no denying Henderson's talents on the hardwood.
The kid has a will to win that's second to none, as was evidenced by leading his team to come-from-behind wins when they were needed the most. Don't pretend like you won't be tuning in to find out "what he did" this time or what kind of game he had against Wisconsin. He's good TV, as any March Madness executive will quickly confess.
While Henderson is a major threat to Wisconsin's hopes, the Badgers have been tested by top talent all season long; Wisconsin on average has faced stiffer competition than Ole Miss as a result of playing in a much stronger conference.
The Big Ten landed eight spots in the NCAA tournament, while the SEC only managed three. The Big Ten was dominant during the regular season in comparison to the SEC, which suffered through one of it's weaker seasons in history.
Within their own leagues, both teams have beaten top talent. Wisconsin knocked off Indiana and Michigan twice each this season, not to mention a win over Ohio State. The Rebels edged Florida in the SEC championship game and defeated Missouri twice this year.
Unlike the Rebels, who rely heavily upon G Marshall Henderson (20.1 PPG) and F Murphy Holloway 14.6 PPG) for point production, Wisconsin currently has four different players averaging between nine and 11 points per game.
In terms of scoring offense, the Badgers only average 65.5 PPG compared to the Rebels' 77.9 PPG (No. 10 in nation). Wisconsin may not put up tons of points themselves, but they surely do stop other clubs from lighting up the scoreboard. Currently, the Badgers rank No. 10 nationally in scoring defense, only allowing 55.9 PPG. What about Ole Miss? They are a group giving up 67.3 PPG, only good for No. 190 nationally.
Something's got to give, as the nation's No. 10 scoring offense in Ole Miss takes on the nation's No. 10 scoring defense. There's your game story: a 22-point margin between what the Rebels score and what the Badgers allow each contest.
Will No. 22 Marshall Henderson be the difference in the 22-point average spread on March 22?
Whether it's a poor or great performance by Henderson, his play likely determines the outcome.
Here's one final superstitious "22" fact per ESPN's Keith Lipscomb and Chris Fallica:
It's one of the first things that comes to mind upon first glance at the bracket: Which 12-seed is going to beat a 5-seed in the round of 64? There's a good reason for that. Excluding the First Four games, 12-seeds have won at least one game in 22 of the past 24 years (no wins in 2000 or 2007), and at least two games in 11 of the past 12 years.
Look for Ole Miss to extend the current streak of No. 12 seeds winning at least one game in 22 of the past 24 seasons. The SEC Tournament champions will have their hands full with a disciplined, defensive-minded Wisconsin squad, but a hot-shooting Henderson should carry the Rebels into the round of 32.