By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
It seemed an improbable finish and that the Rebels had no business being there, down nine with 2 minutes, 52 seconds left in regulation, then down six with 2:26 left in the overtime after yet another 3-pointer by Illinois State.
But there they were with a chance to win with the final shot with less 10 seconds on the clock, only to throw it away.
It was almost an impressive comeback. Ole Miss came close, its 96-93 overtime loss in the NIT first round was a capsule look at the season.
The Rebels came close to breaking their string of 10 seasons without an NCAA tournament bid, but couldn’t get it done. When it came time to judge the body of work there were too many flaws, too many times in which the other team made the critical plays – road games at Auburn, Alabama, home games against Florida, Vanderbilt – to allow the Rebels to complete the journey.
Through six seasons, Andy Kennedy has won basketball games like no coach in school history, his 125 victories the sixth-most by an SEC coach in his first six years in the league, his five 20-win seasons, the most by an Ole Miss coach.
But even success grows stale, and when it does, the measure for it changes. At this stage of the program’s history, there’s simply one question – did you make the NCAA tournament?
The Rebels, of course, did not, but it was still a solid coaching job by Kennedy and his staff when you consider the make-up of this team, the adversity that the staff dealt with on several fronts.
This team had NIT written all over it until the NCAA granted Murphy Holloway a waiver and ruled him immediately eligible after transferring back from South Carolina. Holloway’s availability gave the Rebels a chance to make an NCAA run.
With Holloway, the Rebels could build around an aggressive and energetic frontcourt, but would that be enough to off-set the loss of Chris Warren and Zach Graham, two thousand-point scorers?
Offense was a season-long struggle.
You can afford to be average with your offense if you protect the ball and hit free throws. Going into the NIT, the Rebels’ 476 turnovers were the most in the SEC, their free throw percentage the worst, barely reaching 60 percent.
In spite of these deficiencies and others, Kennedy got the Rebels to 8-8 in the SEC and won two conference tournament games for the first time in his tenure at Ole Miss.
There were nights with great effort. There were also times when the Rebels couldn’t finish or the head-scratching performance against Vanderbilt in Oxford, a critical late-season opportunity to catch the eye of the NCAA selection committee, when the Rebels were flat and blown away 102-76.
Keeping it together
But Kennedy kept together a team that dealt with the adversity of Holloway’s injury, that caused him to miss all or part of four games, mid-season dismissals of a key player, Dundrecous Nelson, and a freshman, and the bizarre behavior and subsequent suspension of high-profiled transfer Jelan Kendrick, who likely will not return.
All things considered, the Rebels’ five-game win streak and SEC tournament run were impressive.
It’s one more something else that Ole Miss has achieved without reaching the NCAA tournament. Maybe next year.
The core group returns, and the recruiting class, on paper, looks like it might include a scorer.
Time will tell as the journey continues.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@ journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at Djournal.com.