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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Kennedy proves critics wrong with title win

COLUMN: NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Consider Andy Kennedy’s existence justified.

In the stroke of three wild days in Nashville, the embattled Ole Miss basketball coach not only ended speculation that he’d be fired the same season he became the program’s winningest head coach, but that his style of coaching and development couldn’t get the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament.

The argument is officially over.

For the better part of every spring for the last four years, mounting criticism against Kennedy has created a schism between a basketball program in dire need of fan support, budget increases and a facilities overhaul and a Rebel fan base that’s become increasingly fickle about extending their loyalty.

Now, there are no more excuses. Andy Kennedy can win at Ole Miss, and Ole Miss can clearly win big, big games in the SEC. There is no argument:

1. You can’t criticize Kennedy for failing to develop his players. When point court Jarvis Summers sustained a probable concussion against Mizzou, it was freshman Derrick Millinghaus who saved the day and provided a floater with a second remaining to clinch the win in an ugly but unrelenting comeback.

2. You can’t criticize Kennedy for his perceived inability to adjust. In all three games — the Tigers, Vanderbilt and the title game against Florida — the Rebels fell down more than 10 points in the first half, hung on for dear life and came out of the locker room a different team each time.

Ole Miss limited the Commodores and Gators from hitting big perimeter shots in the second half, and Ole Miss’ freedom to double Patric Young with bigs Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner proved successful.

The pair finished with 36 points and freed Marshall Henderson to drive the lane late in the game.

3. And believe it or not, you can’t criticize Ole Miss

for falling apart when it mattered most this season. Sure, they lost two RPI-buster games against Mississippi State and South Carolina, but the Rebels charged back from the Starkville embarrassment to win their last two regular season games, crucial in landing them a double-bye in last week’s tournament.

When Vandy looked exhausted trying to shoot 3s on Saturday, Henderson was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The importance of Ole Miss’ double-bye can’t be overstated when analyzing this tournament title. Whether or not the MSU dud truly “inspired” this team is debatable (Four players said they changed their focus and worked harder after, but Kennedy shot down any narrative that it was a “necessary” loss).

This team was far from perfect, but for once it was perfectly fit for the most important moment of the year. Now Kennedy has the advantage, and regardless of how the NCAA Tournament plays out, he’ll have the leverage to complain, cajole and push Rebel fans. The tables have turned: If Ole Miss is serious about supporting a NCAA Tournament quality program, they finally know empirically that Kennedy can provide that, but not without an increase in support.

The argument over Andy Kennedy is finished. The debate over Ole Miss’ worth as a basketball culture can now begin. (March 18, 2013, Page 1B)

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