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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Even after everything, Ole Miss has hope in Nashville at SEC tourney

COLUMN: NASHVILLE — It stands to feature an overwhelming amount of bad basketball, but the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament bracket reads like a history book of this season’s Ole Miss team, and maybe even tea leaves for its future.

Look no further than Wednesday’s opening round “action,” featuring a mediocre Texas A&M team and three truly awful squads – South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn.

Despite opening tournament play as the third overall seed in the conference, the Rebels are 4-3 against the league’s four worst teams. Remove any one of those losses — especially RPI grenades at South Carolina or at Mississippi State — and Ole Miss is on the right side of the bubble. One simple game against an inarguably inferior squad and Andy Kennedy’s boys aren’t playing for their NCAA Tournament lives again, as is tradition.

It’s worth noting that last year’s success in the conference tournament — Ole Miss won two games at the event for the first time in Kennedy’s run — meant virtually nothing. When the NCAA bracket was announced, selection officials stated that conference tournament performance had little influence in the selection of their at-large bids.

The difference between last year and this season is a bizarre, sort of all-around awful field of 68. Some years there aren’t 68 teams deserving of a chance to play for a national title. This year there might not be 40, at least according to some purists.

It’s that resounding awfulness that seems to have given the Rebels a second, third and fourth chance down the stretch of the regular season. Each time an inexcusable loss seemed to swallow their chances, the field as a whole would simply fail to promote more deserving schools. At the moment the Rebels trail Tennessee, a team they’ve beaten twice this season, in most bracketology projections.

Still an opportunities

Naïve fans cry foul at the idea of the Vols going in at Ole Miss’ expense, but they haven’t tripped and fell so goofily as these Rebels have. Yet, just like after those awful conference losses, there is still hope — Ole Miss has a tough draw as the No. 3 seed, potentially playing Missouri on Friday and Kentucky on Saturday. They’ll likely need to win both to get back on the right side of the bubble, and as well as have the Vols lose early on the other side of the bracket.

It’s a tough, seemingly unfair draw, but had the Rebels fallen to the No. 4 seed (Alabama), they’d likely be playing the Vols for a third time and then almost certainly losing to powerhouse Florida. That’s not a strong enough statement to the selection committee, but downing Missouri and Kentucky can be.

Can be. Could be. Ole Miss is less than reliable in conference tournament play, usually showing up flat under Kennedy until last season’s bang-and-grind approach to frontcourt defense allowed them to outlast UT and Auburn. They’ve got the shooter (Marshall Henderson) they desperately lacked in 2011, now they just need a true team effort similar to their season closing win over LSU.

But that’s not the point — Ole Miss is sometimes wonderful, often awful and always inconsistent under Kennedy. There’s no telling what team shows up on Friday in Nashville. The point is that there’s still a chance, and given the last month of Rebel basketball, that’s remarkable. (March 14, 2013, Page 8)

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