By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The Ole Miss Rebels have a chance to pick up one more pre-conference win tonight.
If they pull it off in Dallas, they won’t generate much news outside the area. Beating a 9-4 SMU team won’t get you your own line on the ticker on ESPN.
But to lose tonight would be devastating.
The Mustangs have won five straight, twice against SWAC opponents. Their RPI of 309, however, would be a sinking anchor to Ole Miss, which enters with an RPI of 69, should the Rebels stumble.
Probably, Ole Miss takes care of business tonight.
The bigger question is will the Rebels take care of business against SEC East opponents. SEC play begins Saturday, and Ole Miss has a chance for an RPI lift against No. 17 Florida in Gainesville.
When the grind of conference play gets going, those RPI opportunities are going to come from the eastern half of the league. The Rebels will have eight games against four West opponents – Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn – who are currently sub-200 RPI teams. The fifth, Arkansas, is at 146.
These numbers, though they will fluctuate, support the general theme that is floating in basketball circles: The SEC West is weak.
Before it’s said and done I think Arkansas will factor in, but Ole Miss and MSU – which Saturday will add All-SEC caliber guard Dee Bost and rehabilitated Renardo Sidney – are the favorites in the West.
Ole Miss needs a win tonight and perhaps 10 against a 16-game conference schedule to really feel good about its resume before the SEC Tournament begins. A weak division does not necessarily mean an easy road. The Rebels are not good enough to be distracted or uninterested on the road against a West opponent. They have to be focused, have to execute each night.
It’s already been proven that a Western Division championship by itself carries no special significance with the selection committee. A 10-6 league mark, though, would be hard to ignore especially if it includes a key Eastern Division win or two.
An NCAA tournament berth for the Rebels – who haven’t had one since 2002 – must include some Eastern success while avoiding a major RPI hit in the West. Right now Auburn – which was good enough to beat Florida State 65-60 at Auburn on Monday night – has an RPI of 336.
From the East, five teams are in the top 60, four in the top 50.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy expresses no outward concern over RPI at this stage of the season, but he has only a limited number of opportunities to impress the committee from here on out.
A 12-3 record going into the SEC season would give Ole Miss a manageable path to the NCAA tournament. Just winning games won’t be enough to get it done for the Rebels, however.
They have to win the right ones.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.