Rebels, Bulldogs in battle for second place

By David Brandt/The Associated Press

OXFORD — Considering the season started with high expectations, second place wasn’t what Mississippi or Mississippi State had in mind.

But with Alabama four games ahead in the Southeastern Conference Western Division and only five games remaining in league play, it’s likely the best either team can do. And it also signifies the best chance either team would have at winning the SEC tournament and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The first and second place teams from each division receive first-round byes in the SEC Tournament. Those teams have to win three games in three days to win the title. The other teams have to win four games in four days.

“Obviously, coaches would rather win three in a row than four,” Kennedy said.

Ole Miss (17-9 overall, 5-6 Southeastern Conference) travels to Mississippi State (13-12, 5-6) on Saturday in a game that could go a long way toward deciding who gets that first-round bye. The Rebels and Bulldogs are in a three-way tie for second place with Arkansas.

Kennedy said considering the circumstances, second place is certainly a goal. But Ole Miss also has a faint glimmer of hope for an NCAA at-large bid, though the Rebels would almost certainly have to win all of their remaining regular-season games to have a chance.

“For us, it’s about getting better and playing our way into the conversation — that’s what we’re attempting to do,” Kennedy said. “We’re not listening at all to the nonsense, because the reality is there’s a lot of basketball left to play and we’re trying to take advantage of our opportunities.”

Ole Miss has played well over the past four weeks, winning five of seven games after opening the SEC schedule with four straight losses. The Rebels blew out Auburn on Wednesday in a 90-59 rout, shooting nearly 57 percent in the team’s best offensive performance in conference play.

Just like everyone else, Kennedy has observed Mississippi State’s bizarre season that’s been defined by infighting, suspensions and embarrassment. But the Rebels’ coach isn’t judging.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for them,” Kennedy said. “I know they’ve had their ups and downs. We all have this year … Mississippi State has got a talented team. Their five starters are as good as anybody’s in this league. We know it’s going to be a big challenge for us. I just want us to relax and play the game offensively the way we can.”

Mississippi State has lost three of its last five, including an 85-79 loss to Kentucky on Tuesday.

But the Bulldogs have owned the rivalry with Ole Miss recently, winning the past four games in the series, including a 69-64 victory in Oxford on Jan. 13. Ole Miss junior Terrance Henry said it was hard to point out a specific reason Mississippi State had been so dominant.

“To be honest, I don’t know,” Henry said. “I guess they take it more personally than we do. But we’re going to try to change things on Saturday.”

For the Rebels to change the momentum, they’ll have to figure out a way to stop Renardo Sidney. The 6-foot-10 sophomore has been inconsistent this season, but was terrific in the first meeting between the two teams, scoring a season-high 24 points.

The Bulldogs have also been helped by the emergence of Jalen Steele, who moved into the starting lineup after the latest round of team turmoil. Starting guard Ravern Johnson was suspended on Feb. 4 after sending out Tweets that were critical of his role with team and of fans.

He’s returned, but is now coming off the bench. Steele’s take advantage of the opportunity, scoring 17 points against Kentucky.

“I come in, I give a spark,” Steele said. “The past few games, we’ve been doing good playing together, everything has been flowing.”