By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
NEW ORLEANS – The current cast of Ole Miss players have never played in the NCAA tournament, but they’ve watched a lot of basketball.
After they secured the biggest win of the Andy Kennedy Era, the players and their coach employed a grandmother’s pearl of wisdom that encompasses basketball and many other walks of life.
“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”
But the chickens require counting, or at least discussing, after the Rebels’ 77-72 SEC tournament overtime win against Tennessee, a win that puts them into today’s semifinals against Vanderbilt.
It’s their second trip to the SEC semis under Kennedy, and it came against a team that really controlled the Rebels in a 13-point loss in Knoxville, and was doing so again in the same fashion – winning on the boards – until the Rebels stood strong.
With less than 3 minutes to play in regulation, Tennessee had 44 rebounds, 20 of them on the offensive end. The Vols got only one more offensive rebound the rest of the way.
It was another example of overcoming adversity, which for a team that lacked consistency much of this season, is a reason why they stand on the cusp of counting NCAA tournament chickens.
They may be in. The Rebels present a compelling argument after beating the Vols for their fifth straight win.
“We came in low-50s tonight in the RPI. I would have to think now we’re going to be in the mid-40s. That puts you in the game doesn’t? Can I get an amen?” Kennedy asked.
No guarantees of course, but a win has created a very compelling argument for Ole Miss – a likely RPI in the 40s, solid strength of schedule, a fifth-straight win.
There’s the real possibility the Rebels and Vols were playing for the right to dance.
Tennessee has an RPI stunted by early missteps against Oakland, Autin Peay and College of Charleston.
But it was the hottest of any SEC team not named Kentucky going into New Orleans, winning eight of its last nine, sweeping Florida and rising to the SEC tournament’s No. 2 seed.
The question is will the conference get five bids or four? Numerically it has held steady at a No. 4 ranking in conference RPI much of the season. Recently the SEC climbed to No. 3 – above the Big 12 – according to the numbers at RealTimeRPI.com.
The league got five bids last year and, the numbers say it’s better than it was then. The SEC had an RPI rating of No. 6 among conferences last year.
If the league gets five bids, you would think Ole Miss has entrenched itself as the fifth team.
The Rebels already had the SEC’s fifth-highest RPI. It will be higher today. The shedule strength is rated 43, and they split with Tennessee, their win coming on a neutral court.
There will be a level of fluctation for the bubble as conference tournaments continue to play out.
Kennedy was pleased that there was not an atmosphere of celebration in the locker room, but there was definitely a cautious optimism.
Murphy Holloway says he thought Terrance Henry, the Rebels’ most important senior, had a vision when he was knocking down free throws at the end.
“I don’t know if we’re in, but I think he seen it. We got a chance,” said Holloway, a junior forward.
“I hope this got us over the hump,” junior guard Nick Williams said. “But we just have to look at our next game. It’s the biggest game of the season.”
Indeed it is.
And the chickens will be more plentiful, the goal even closer to reality if the Rebels win one more game.