Still, as I watched a determined Ole Miss team – “super-hyped” in the words of Rebels coach Andy Kennedy – defend with energy and hit big shots Saturday night against the No. 10-ranked team, I couldn’t help but think of the last time they had such an opportunity against a key RPI opponent at home.
That was late last season as Ole Miss was trying to play its way into the NCAA tournament and came out flat against Vanderbilt, losing 102-76.
“Different year, different team,” Kennedy said.
It certainly looked like a different team this past week for the first two games of SEC play. The Rebels backed up a dominant 92-74 road win against Tennessee with a solid 64-49 win over No. 10 Missouri.
Yes, Missouri was playing without forward Laurence Bowers, a key player who averages 16.8 points, but the Tigers had the advantage of being in games like this before and emerging from them with big success.
But this is a different Ole Miss team.
Looking down the roster many of the players are the same. There’s only one newcomer in the starting lineup – junior college transfer guard Marshall Henderson.
What’s different about this team right now, though, is its chemistry. There is no disease eating away from the inside. Suspensions are down, productivity is up.
Following the regular season game against Vanderbilt last year, the Rebels’ chemistry problem spilled into public view with a Jelan Kendrick meltdown just outside the locker room.
Prior to that incident, there was the arrest and dismissal of sophomore guard Dundrecous Nelson, the team’s leading scorer at the time.
This Ole Miss team is much more united.
Most of the players are the same, except for Henderson, but he’s a pretty big piece. He went into the Missouri game as the SEC’s leading scorer coming off a 32-point night at Tennessee. He’s such an impact player that even when his 3-point shots aren’t falling he affects the game by giving Murphy Holloway and others room to work inside. Teams have to guard Henderson, and he creates spacing in the post by simply standing in the corner.
Had the Rebels lost to Missouri – a very talented team even without Bowers – it would not have immediately doomed them to the NIT.
Just like winning didn’t guarantee an NCAA bid.
Winning did send a signal, though. This is a different Ole Miss team right now, with a chance to do something different in March as well.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs at InsideOleMissSports.com.