The final week of the men’s basketball regular season is officially here and the Ole Miss Rebels have a lot of work to do in order to even have a remote chance of advancing to the NCAA Tournament later this month.
The opponents this week are important simply because the Rebels need to win both to help garner an off day in the SEC Tournament thus making the road to winning the title more manageable. Ole Miss hosts Alabama on Tuesday night before ending the season Saturday on the road at LSU.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy talked about Saturday’s 73-67 loss to Mississippi State during today’s weekly SEC Teleconference and the significance of what the final two games means moving forward.
“It was a tough loss and we didn’t play very well. Mississippi State, I thought, really, really played with a sense of urgency in defending their home floor. For us, it was a damaging loss to our profile,” Kennedy said. “All we can do now is to get ready for the next game. Our final two regular season games will determine where we are as it relates to seeding in the SEC Tournament and we know we will have to go to Nashville and get some work done.
“I know we have to win games. Regardless of what happens to us in the final two regular season games, we’re still going to have work to do,” Kennedy said when asked to elaborate on the SEC Tournament. “My hope is that we will respond and come out on Senior Night and defend our home floor which we have done fairly well and then find a way to go and break through on the road in Baton Rouge. We won our first three league games on the road and lost our last five so obviously what was working early is not working now and we’ve got to examine that and make the necessary adjustments.”
If the Rebels were to win out this week, they would finish the SEC slate with a 12-6 record and give themselves a chance to finish in the top four and earn a bye. The tournament begins Wednesday, March 13, while teams that earn a bye would not have to play until Friday and only have to win three games to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Alabama enters Tuesday’s game at C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum with an 11-5 mark.
Kennedy was later asked how big of an X factor Marshall Henderson, the team and SEC’s leading scorer, could be this week and beyond.
“Here is the SEC’s leading scorer and he’s scoring around 20 points a game in league play and when you’re leading scorer is not scoring at the rate, especially on the road, then you have to have other guys step up,” Kennedy said. “I always thought this — your best players carry you on the road. Your role players can help you a little more at home but on the road but you need your best players, your all-league caliber guys, to perform and we certainly struggled in that area.”
Henderson finished with 16 points against MSU but he was just 3-for-18 from behind the 3-point arc.
“I’ve examined it. We watch a lot of tape before, during and after (games). We look at the quality of his looks, time, score, where are we getting the shot? The shots that he’s missing are the ones that he hits day in and day out,” Kennedy said. “It’s just making the plays that are there.”
Outside of missed shots by Henderson, another reason why the Rebels are on the outside looking in at the NCAA field stems from injuries suffered by senior Nick Williams and Aaron Jones, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL against Kentucky. Those two were lost when the scheduled also got tougher, with road games at Florida and Missouri immediately after and just 12 days after the UK loss.
“The loss to Kentucky was one thing. You never want to lose on your home floor and that’s probably what makes it that more damaging because you have to protect your home floor to have a chance,” Kennedy said. “Losing Nick, and he really missed two or three games I believe, with plantar fascia tear, he never really regained the explosiveness that he needs. He has struggled a little bit as a senior and I hate that for him because I know how hard he works. There aren’t a lot of guys that can even come back from that injury but that’s based on his desire to be back with us.
“Losing AJ, everybody deals with injuries and adversity throughout the course of the season, but here was a guy that had developed into an 18-22 minute a game guy. Losing him really puts a strain on your front line as it relates to rotation having already lost DeMarco Cox before league play even started. It changed things for us and made us awfully thin. It has made us very dependent on those two seniors up front.” (March 4, 2013)