By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy would not call last Saturday’s visit to LSU a must-win game.
He’s in good company. Most coaches wouldn’t venture that far out with so much basketball still to be played.
But given the status quo for the Rebels, that’s how the LSU game shaped up. Fortunately, the Rebels shaped up in the last 10 minutes and won 73-63.
Thursday’s game at Auburn carries similar significance.
It’s nearly a must-win for an Ole Miss team trying to play its way into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
The deal is this: Winning only SEC home games is an almost certain recipe for NCAA disaster. The league’s RPI, fourth among conferences, again is unimpressive. The Rebels need an SEC mark of 9-7 minimum – perhaps 10-6 – to feel good about their bid chances without the need for a deep SEC tournament run.
What better places to pick up road wins than against the teams in your own division that have combined for only one conference win – that coming when one, Auburn, played at the other’s place.
Together the Western Division’s two teams of Tigers are 1-9 in the league.
Auburn has been competitive, and its experienced, if not overly talented, players will be buoyed by recent success against Ole Miss. The Tigers – who lost only by five against Kentucky and led by 16 at Vanderbilt before losing 82-74 – have won three of the last four and six of the last nine in the series with the Rebels.
To make this work, the Rebels not only have to win at Auburn but continue to win at home, where Vanderbilt and Florida remain on the schedule along with everyone in the West except Mississippi State.
Winning at Auburn and winning out at home would leave Ole Miss at 10-6 when the dust settles.
Winning at Alabama, Arkansas or MSU isn’t out of the question, but Auburn’s inability to close games makes it appear vulnerable.
Closing games is something Ole Miss did successfully last week after letting a big one get away with a double-figure lead in the middle of the second half at then-No. 9 Tennessee.
The Rebels have a lot of weapons. They won at home against South Carolina and at LSU last week by getting a little from a lot of people but not a lot from all the marquee people.
That is the status quo. Ole Miss is still looking for the monster contributions that Terrico White brought to the table as a true freshman when he was at times the only scoring option.
It was understood that the return of Chris Warren and White’s own transition to off guard would mean that he would score less, but he’s not filling up the stat sheet.
When the game’s over you can see basketball plays by his name – rebounds or steals, sometimes points – but he has rarely taken the ball one-on-one and beaten a defender with a 3-point shot or by driving past him the way he did so many times last year.
It’s post time
The other big concern in the status quo continues to be post defense and the team’s inability to guard without fouling most of the time.
There have been stretches where the defense has been good – at crunch time at Georgia and for the last 9 minutes, 39 seconds against LSU when the Tigers didn’t get to the free throw line.
Before that time it looked like the Tigers were on pace for 30 trips to the line, an alarming trend for Ole Miss opponents. The defense stiffened, most of it the zone, and LSU was held to 23 free throw attempts, making 18.
Ole Miss has a good basketball team now with the potential to be much better.
That’s why Thursday night at Auburn is a big deal. It could be the team’s third road win. Make the tweaks and adjustments as you roll along, and further road wins – while winning at home – would be gravy.
Then the status quo on Selection Sunday could be quite pleasant.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at NEMS360.com.