COLUMN: Sunday night’s announcement that the Ole Miss Rebels were indeed headed back to the National Invitation Tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons didn’t catch me off guard. It didn’t catch anybody off guard who really follows the Rebels and knows anything about basketball.
While it appeared that the Rebels might finally break through and advance to the NCAA Tournament before the season started, the harsh reality of it all was this team just wasn’t talented enough to get there.
Talent, to me, means a whole bunch of different things. It’s more than just being more physically gifted than another team. My definition of talent also involves chemistry, hard work, determination and mental preparation. As good as the Rebels looked in wins over Kentucky and Alabama this year, they didn’t look nearly as gifted in losses to Georgia, Mississippi State, Auburn or South Carolina.
There were too many things this team had to overcome to win games every time it played.
As good as Chris Warren is and was during the year, and as improved and important as Zach Graham became as a senior, there was too much inconsistency shown by the rest of the players to really make it an NCAA Tournament team. That was evident by the Rebels being a No. 5 seed in the NIT. You knew when Alabama didn’t make it to the “Big Dance” after winning 12 games in the Southeastern Conference that Ole Miss wouldn’t have been close even if it had defeated Auburn and South Carolina late in the year.
Not really close
In order for the Rebels to really have a shot at gaining access into the NCAAs, they had to win five or more games during the year. The early season loss to Dayton looms as a huge reason why the Rebels are in the NIT again as much as anything. A road loss to Miami, who went 6-10 in the ACC, was another indicator that the Rebels weren’t probably good enough, while a poor shooting night against Colorado State that led to a loss in Mexico was another setback that hurt just as bad, or worse, than any of the SEC losses.
Some Ole Miss fans have singled out Andy Kennedy for not leading the team to the NCAA Tournament after five years on the job. Coaches, regardless of the sport, bare the brunt of fans’ anger and disappointment when things don’t go the way they think they should. I understand the frustration of the fans, but I personally believe that Kennedy and his staff worked diligently to get this team on the right track during the year.
Most teams would have folded after an 0-4 start to league play, but Kennedy was at least able to get his Rebels to finish 7-5 the rest of the way and make amends for the loss to South Carolina in the tournament. Ole Miss played Kentucky better than Florida or Alabama did in the SEC Tournament and that’s something to be proud of even if the Rebels didn’t earn the win.
More support needed
The simple answer to the entire season for the Rebels goes back to talent. Ole Miss just wasn’t the same without Murphy Holloway in the lineup. Without Reginald Buckner on the floor, the Rebels had to rely way too much on their outside shooting to win games. Terrance Henry had his moments, especially late in the year, but the frontcourt void left when Holloway exited was never fully filled by anybody.
Terrico White, who left after his sophomore season, could have also helped this year’s team. I thought Warren and Graham developed more without White in the lineup, but there’s no getting around the fact that having an athletic 6-5 wing like White on the team would have helped in some capacity. His physical skills were just too good to lose without anybody else stepping up in his place and there was nobody on this year’s team with his raw ability.
Ole Miss may have been able to make up for Holloway and White with better mental play and more hard work. The hardest this team played was down the stretch when things were firmly against them. You can’t ever go back in time, but I think things would have been different if the Rebels gained that sense of urgency a lot, lot sooner. That wasn’t the case and now they are all left to wonder what could have been.
Playing in the NIT every year is not the goal of the Rebels or Kennedy. It’s become a reality because of the things I just mentioned, but it doesn’t have to continue to be the standard rather than the exception. It may be too much to expect the Rebels to play in the NCAAs every year. The criteria for being one of the 37 at-large teams that earn a bid is tougher than it has ever been, and it’s unrealistic to expect a program that routinely doesn’t have three or four of the top 50 players in the nation on the roster to win the SEC Tournament title.
Ole Miss needs to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2002 season, but it can’t be done overnight, it has to be done from the ground up. Kennedy has tried to do that with his style of play and unfortunately for him, things haven’t always gone according to his plan.
Does that make him a bad coach? No, I think it’s more that his plan has yet to be realized. Some may not like me saying that because they want to see a change, but ask yourself this: How good is the program really? I was here 15 years ago when Rob Evans turned a perennial loser into a winner, even if for a few years.
I’ve also seen Rod Barnes take away all that momentum by not recruiting like he should have after he started his coaching tenure.
In short, Ole Miss’ glory is four good seasons and one Sweet 16 appearance. That’s it. Nothing more.
I firmly believe that Ole Miss can win at a higher level in basketball, but I don’t think this program will ever be an automatic in the NCAAs, not without a lot more money invested by the administration and the fans who attend the games.
Should we all settle for mediocrity? No. But there has to be a level of appreciation for the way things are now compared to what they were just six years ago and what is realistic in relation to what this program can indeed produce.
That’s what this year’s NIT appearance means to me, as a writer who covers the team, and what it should mean to the coaches, players and fans who are also invested in the outcome each year. (March 15, 2011, Page 8)