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Rebels want momentum ahead of SEC Tournament

It’s more likely than not Ole Miss’ only shot of playing in this year’s NCAA Tournament is for the Rebels to get the Southeastern Conference’s automatic bid by winning next week’s league tournament, though Andy Kennedy isn’t so sure.

Ole Miss’ coach watched his Marshall Henderson-led squad run the table in the 2013 conference tournament when many thought it was the only way for the Rebels to sneak in only to find out later his team was in the field of 68 even before knocking off Florida for the tournament title.

“That’s the long answer to say I don’t know,” Kennedy said.

What Kennedy does know is his team will have to at least get to the final day of this year’s tournament to even get in the at-large conversation, and he wants his team feeling as good about itself as possible heading to Nashville, Tennessee, next week.

After knocking off rival Mississippi State on Wednesday, Ole Miss (19-11, 9-8 SEC) will try to end the regular season on a two-game winning streak when it travels to Tennessee on Saturday (11 a.m., SEC Network). It’s been a struggle this season for the Volunteers (13-17, 6-11), who enter Saturday’s game on a three-game losing streak, but Tennessee has protected its home floor with all but one of its wins coming in Thompson Boling Arena.

The game will pit the SEC’s top two scorers against each other in Stefan Moody and Tennessee’s Kevin Punter Jr. should Punter end up playing. Punter, who’s right behind Moody’s 23.4 points per game at 22.2 a night, has missed four straight games with a stress fracture in his foot, but the Rebels are preparing as if the senior guard will go.

“Our game plan going in will be preparing for him to play,” Kennedy said. “But a lot of it is just matchups and how you defend certain things.”

Staying the same

The benefit in playing Mississippi State and Tennessee in back-to-back games, Kennedy said, is the similarity in styles of play. The Volunteers go smaller than Mississippi State with the lack of a true inside presence, which will test Tomasz Gielo, Sebastian Saiz and the rest of Ole Miss’ bigs defensively.

“Tennessee does not have that big-bodied (center), but they can really space you at four different places,” Kennedy said. “Not necessarily with great shooting, although they’re capable, but they’re very athletic a lot like Mississippi State. They’re going to spread you. A guy like Tomasz Gielo, a guy like Marcanvis Hymon and Sebas at times are going to be out of their comfort zone and having to guard perimeter players.”

The Rebels just want to slow them down enough to get a win.

“I want to try to get to 20 (wins), get to 10-8 in the league and continue to try to build momentum going into Nashville and hopefully we can make a magical run,” Kennedy said.