Eyeing late push for NCAA bid, Ole Miss seeks more consistency

Published 6:00 am Monday, February 13, 2017

 Coaching teams on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament discussion this time of year isn’t anything new for Andy Kennedy, though this year’s Ole Miss team has some work to do to even get in the conversation.

Following Saturday’s comeback win over Auburn, the Rebels are tied for sixth in the Southeastern Conference standings. The league is only projected to get three or four teams in the field of 68 depending on the source of bracketology, but with the SEC Tournament less than a month away, Kennedy and his team don’t have time to worry about anything but themselves.

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“I don’t look at, ‘OK, who’s playing whom?’ I’m just going to try to focus on us,” Kennedy said. “Let’s just try to win as many as we can going into Nashville (at the SEC Tournament) and see what happens.”

In order to do that, Ole Miss (15-10, 6-6 SEC) will need to play its most consistent stretch of basketball in the final six games of the regular season starting Tuesday at home against LSU (8 p.m., SEC Network). The Rebels have been better of late, winning three of their last four games and five of eight since starting 1-4 in league play, but there are still facets of their game that come and go.

Ole Miss’ best chance at a signature win slipped away against No. 6 Baylor last month when the Bears’ inside-out combination pushed Baylor ahead late for a 78-75 win. The Rebels followed that up with back-to-back wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt by a combined 34 points and led Tennessee, a top-50 RPI team, for 33 minutes on the road last week before going cold late in a 75-66 loss.

But the Rebels’ most Jekyll-and-Hyde performance of the season came in their last outing, a 23-point deficit-turned-90-84 win that gave Ole Miss yet another season sweep of Auburn. The Rebels didn’t defend much of anything in a first half that saw the Tigers shoot 56.3 percent from the field, but Ole Miss turned up the intensity coming out of the locker room and got Terence Davis going (career-high 26 points in the final 18 minutes) to outscore Auburn 63-37 in the second half and match the largest comeback in program history.

Ole Miss also got its season-long turnover issues under control again, committing just four of its 11 in the second half. But the Rebels, who average more than 15 turnovers a game, turned it over 18 times at Tennessee after committing just eight in each of the previous three games.

“We’ve had certain segments of games where we’ve looked like a quality team,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to knit this thing together for 40 minutes.”

The win over Auburn was Ole Miss’ fifth over a top-100 RPI team, but a 1-8 record against the RPI top 50 leaves the Rebels lacking the kind of quality wins needed to make a real case for an NCAA at-large bid. A trip to take on bubble team Arkansas (No. 43 RPI) on Saturday and a rematch with No. 19 South Carolina to end the regular season March 4 give Ole Miss chances to improve on that while the rest are virtual must-wins, though exactly how many wins the Rebels need to crawl onto the bubble is anyone’s guess.

Kennedy cited the 2011-12 season as an example. The Rebels won their last three regular-season games that year and their first two in the SEC Tournament to make it to the semifinals yet were relegated to the NIT with a 20-13 record.

Ole Miss made its first NCAA Tournament appearance under Kennedy the following season by winning the SEC Tournament but found out on Selection Sunday it would’ve made the tournament anyway as an at-large selection after winning its first two in Nashville. Ole Miss lost three of four to end the 2014-15 regular season and went one and done in the SEC Tournament but still made the field of 68 at 20-12.

So Kennedy’s message to this year’s team the rest of the way is a simple one.

“You’ve just got to keep playing the games,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got six left. We’ve got to win some games.”