By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Ole Miss’ Nick Williams knows what it’s like to just miss the NCAA tournament.
That’s why the fifth-year senior isn’t too giddy about the Rebels’ current seven-game winning streak, including a 4-0 start in Southeastern Conference play and a national ranking for the first time since 2010.
“We don’t want to just be 4-0,” Williams said after Saturday’s win over Arkansas. “We want to keep it going.”
The cautious approach is probably warranted.
The Rebels have been in the NCAA tournament hunt many times over the past several years, only to falter down the stretch during late January and February. The program has won at least 20 games in five of the past six seasons, but has no NCAA tournament appearances during that span, settling for the National Invitation Tournament in all five of those seasons.
Ole Miss hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2002 — the longest drought in the SEC.
But there’s little doubt seventh-year coach Andy Kennedy has his most talented team — and certainly his most dynamic on the offensive end. No. 23 Ole Miss (15-2) is averaging more than 82 points per game this season, which ranks 3rd nationally out of 345 Division I teams and easily leads the SEC.
It’s an experienced, diverse group that includes Marshall Henderson, a sharpshooting guard who’s averaging a league-best 18.9 points per game. But when Henderson’s touch goes cold, there are plenty of other options. Murphy Holloway is the only player averaging a double-double in the SEC, with 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
Reginald Buckner and Williams are also averaging more than 10 points per game. Buckner — a 6-foot-9 forward who combines with Holloway to form a ferocious duo in the paint — is second in the SEC with nearly three blocked shots per game.
“That’s the great thing about our team, we’ve got so many different people who do some many different things,” Williams said. “When two or three people aren’t doing what we need to win, we’ve got other guys who can step up. We’re a deep team.”
And because of that, the Rebels are rolling, though they’re certainly not invincible. They needed a 35-footer from Henderson at the buzzer in regulation to tie Vanderbilt and eventually beat the Commodores in overtime last week.
But a win is a win, and because the SEC as a whole struggled so badly during nonconference play, the Rebels will likely need a lot of them during the conference’s 18-game slog to stay in the NCAA tournament picture. The NCAA’s current RPI rankings have Ole Miss at No. 32.
“My hope is that our guys will continue to embrace the grind, because that’s what it is,” Kennedy said. “We’re two weeks into a nine-week grind. We’ve got seven more and we’ve got to be ready for those.”
The third week begins on Thursday when Ole Miss hosts Tennessee (9-7, 1-3) at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin had high praise for the Rebels on Tuesday, saying “they have all the pieces to be very successful.”
Ole Miss certainly played well against Tennessee two weeks ago, beating the Volunteers 92-74 in Knoxville. Henderson scored a career-high 32 points in that game — combining hot shooting with some added theatrics that irritated some of the Tennessee players.
But Martin didn’t seem to have an issue with it. He suggested that if his players were embarrassed by Henderson’s show, they should play better defense.
“The guy’s scoring baskets, making plays. I enjoyed watching him,” Martin said. “I hate being on the other side, but this is competitive basketball. You’ve got to step to the plate.”
Henderson might be the main focus of Tennessee’s defensive attention on Thursday, but the entire program is starting to deal with added expectations.
Holloway says he doesn’t expect any slippage just because the Rebels are starting to get noticed. If anything, he said it adds to the excitement. Ole Miss has announced two straight sellouts at Tad Smith Coliseum, and expects another on Thursday.
“I’ve waited so long just to be relevant,” Holloway said. “We’ve still got to be hungry.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP