COLUMN: STARKVILLE — Ole Miss men’s basketball coach Andy Kennedy put both of his hands over his face right before meeting his team for one of their last timeouts in Saturday’s game with Mississippi State.
The gesture came seconds after another missed 3-point attempt and in the midst of an inexplicable 73-67 loss to the last-place Mississippi State Bulldogs at Humphrey Coliseum.
Kennedy has put his hands over his face before in his seven years leading the Rebels, but this time, it meant so much more.
It signified more than just a missed shot, a turnover or lost rebound; it was sheer frustration on the part of a coach who has tried so hard to lead the Rebels into the NCAA Tournament since he arrived in Oxford. It was as if Kennedy was saying, ‘how in the world could we not win this game?’
What the end result of Saturday’s loss ultimately means will be determined in the near future. After starting the SEC schedule with six straight wins and finding themselves ranked as high as No. 16 in the nation, the Rebels are out of the NCAA Tournament discussion. That’s what happens when you lose to teams like MSU and South Carolina, two schools that have an RPI in the mid-200s. They are anchors that are virtually impossible to overcome when it comes time for the NCAA selection committee to pick at large teams for the field of 68.
Barring an amazing run in the SEC Tournament in 10 days, one that would garner the Rebels an automatic bid for the first time since 1981, Kennedy and the Rebels will be playing in the NIT for the sixth time in seven years, if they even choose that route.
“The message is a huge, huge blown opportunity. They realize what just happened and we’ve got three games left. We can’t call the commissioner and say because of what happened in Starkville, we’re not going to play Tuesday night, Alabama on Senior Night,” Kennedy said during Saturday’s postgame about the message moving forward. “Then we got to go to Baton Rouge next weekend and depending on how we play, it will determine what happens next.”
Kennedy followed that up by saying he felt like his team had to win out in Nashville, Tenn., the site of this year’s SEC Tournament, in order to make the NCAAs.
“Oh definitely. That’s what I think,” Kennedy said. “Now I’m not on the committee, but most definitely now, our goal is to try to win out, which would put us in the first round bye territory and you try to win three in three days as opposed to four in four.”
That’s a tough statement to swallow if you’re an Ole Miss fan and an even tougher thing for this team to accomplish considering the way it has played the second half of the SEC season.
If the Rebels don’t succeed, if they don’t win against Alabama and LSU to end the regular season and then win in Nashville, the future of the program will come down to a tough decision. Kennedy was asked if he thought a coaching change would be made following the season, a question he obviously didn’t like to have to answer.
“That question should be asked to the person who is in charge of my job, not me. I’m going to coach this team at Ole Miss. To me, this is a privilege. I grew up right up the road. When I was driving in here tonight, I saw (Highway) 25 to Louisville, that’s where I was born. I’ve been in this building 100 times watching Bulldogs and Rebels. This is a privilege to coach at Ole Miss and to be a head coach in the SEC,” Kennedy said. “I’m the all-time winningest coach in the history of this program. I’m very proud of a lot of things that we’ve done. Am I satisfied? Not close. But I work at the leisure of my employer and if he tells me today, Andy, you’re no longer the head coach at Ole Miss, I’m going to thank him.
“I understand the frustration of the fans. I feel that same frustration. You talk about a guy that has blood, sweat and tears in this for seven years,” Kennedy continued. “I’ve been dancing on this fence for a long time. All I do, I control what I can control. All of those questions, all of that speculation should be asked to the person who has the ability to make those decisions, not me.”
Kennedy and the Rebels are in a tough situation, one that has been selfinflicted with losses like Saturday.
Nobody thought this team would go 18-0 in the SEC, but I don’t think anybody thought they would play as poorly as they did against MSU either, not with so much on the line. I know I felt like the loss to South Carolina would be the Rebels one “mulligan’ if you will on losing to a team they had no business losing to. Obviously I was absolutely wrong in that department.
Kennedy has done a lot of good since he arrived from Cincinnati as Rod Barnes replacement. He has won 20 or more games in six of his seven years. He’s graduated players and he’s had to deal with several key injuries that may have otherwise helped bust through that NCAA glass ceiling.
He’s also responsible for the product and the team on the court. These are his recruits and whether the talent could be better than what it is with a new arena or not, the roster has enough talent to defeat teams in a very weak SEC this year.
It’s up to the players to find a way to win out now. Their chances have been considerably minimized but there have been amazing runs made before. And this is a year where another amazing run has to be made.