By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
There is no bigger game than the next game, because big really is only big after individual games are linked together along the way.
Then, maybe, you have something big.
One regular season win in February guarantees nothing but opportunity. It’s the chance to win another game later in the week. Suddenly, March comes into view, and a clearer picture forms.
A clearer picture will form with a loss or two also, an unfortunate picture, and the final work will become clearer sooner than with one or two February wins.
That’s why college basketball in March is so much fun, or so painful depending on what you’ve strung together along the way.
As Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy seeks to guide the Rebels into the NCAA tournament – his first as a coach and the program’s first since 2002 – Thursday’s home game with No. 17 Vanderbilt is critical in the pursuit of that goal.
Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is the critical factor in awarding at-large bids, and Ole Miss has an RPI ranking of 48, having dropped with three losses in its last four games. The Commodores come in with an RPI ranking of 15. No remaining regular season opponent has a Top 50 RPI ranking.
A win over Vanderbilt would be a big lift in the RPI discussion.
Ole Miss will have had a week to plan and get healthy by the time Thursday arrives, and the Vanderbilt game is the first of three straight at home with Florida and Auburn to follow.
The Rebels have clearly missed freshman forward Reggie Buckner – the team’s best low-post defender and an emerging offensive threat. He’s missed four games since sustaining a high ankle sprain at Auburn on Jan. 28.
The status of Buckner (6-foot-9, 235) for Thursday remains to be seen. He’s been “day to day” since the injury. Hopefully for Ole Miss his day will come soon. When it does, he’ll provide an instant defensive presence, but it’s a stretch to believe that a freshman coming into his own will jump right back into the fray without a backward step of some measure.
Whatever the Rebels could get from Buckner would be helpful against Vanderbilt’s A.J. Ogilvy, a skilled inside player.
Going into last Thursday’s game at Mississippi State there was a general feeling among the crowd of scribes, perhaps not shared by Kennedy, that the game was bigger for MSU. The Bulldogs had lost four of five and needed some serious resume-building, some stringing of wins, if they were to approach the throne room of the selection committee with a meaningful chance.
For Ole Miss, the time is now.
With or without Buckner the Rebels need to hit shots and play defense for 40 minutes, not just 20 as they did in their last home game.
The stretch is here. If the Rebels put some wins together in this homestand, the RPI will take care of itself.
If they don’t, the big picture will ultimately complete itself, and it won’t be a piece of art that sells well in Oxford.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.