By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Barring the unforeseen, another Ole Miss basketball season is about to wind up without a trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Rebels would have to win this week’s SEC tournament and the accompanying automatic berth to end a streak of eight years with no trip to the Big Dance.
That’s become a point of contention with a growing number in the fan base, detractors that Andy Kennedy did not have in his early years at Ole Miss.
Worse than detractors, in 2006 there was indifference.
Kennedy has changed that and has in some ways become a victim of his success. The Rebels just completed the regular season at 7-9 in the SEC, third place in a weak division, not in contention for the West title as was projected for them back in October.
Ole Miss appears to be in good shape for the NIT. Another appearance would be the Rebels’ fourth in five years under Kennedy, a statistic that speaks of stagnation. That’s not the tournament that college basketball coaches are trying to reach.
Coaches and players are judged by whether they’ve reached the NCAA tournament and what they did when they got there.
As meager as the basketball history is at Ole Miss, fans have a right to have that expectation. Winning has not been sustained at the school, but it has been accomplished, and Kennedy has put the program within reach of the NCAAs again … so close, but yet so far.
Now, however, is not the time for change.
First, there’s the cash consideration. A million here, a million there, and soon you’re talking about real money. There is no buyout clause in Kennedy’s contract, and the school would owe him $3.9 million if it parted ways.
Then there’s the body of work. Kennedy is 38-42 in five SEC regular seasons. Change a few possessions – against Florida and Vanderbilt last year, against Kentucky in 2008 – and how are things different? At least one NCAA tournament bid then.
The point is, the program is close. While close is not a free pass with no expiration date, it should have some bearing in the decision process.
If you’re contemplating a change at the top you better have a plan, and you don’t make that change unless you can make the program better.
Making the program better may first require a new arena. Perhaps then Ole Miss could develop the plan and attract the coach to fit it.
A week ago, we entered that lull in a season where a team knows it’s no longer playing for an NCAA at-large bid. Kennedy was reluctant to talk about the future then, but soon he’ll have a chance to outline his plan for getting the Rebels into the event he has called the “big boy tournament.”
Next season presents the hurdle of finding a replacement for Chris Warren, who will end his career in all likelihood as the No. 3 scorer in school history.
The roster will change, but the standard by which Kennedy and his staff are judged will not.
You can only tease for so long.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.