Rebels are home, but will it be sweet?

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – When it comes down to it, the Ole Miss Rebels might be in the right tournament after all.
At least that’s Don Maestri’s current world view.
After punishing Maestri’s Sun Belt Conference champs, Troy, in the NIT first round, the Rebels meet Memphis in Round 2. Tipoff is at 5:30 p.m., at Tad Smith Coliseum, and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
The Tigers (24-9) finished third in Conference USA and survived a late run by St. John’s to win 73-71 in the first round Thursday night.
Ole Miss (22-10) and Memphis are two wins away from a trip to New York for the NIT semifinals.
“I hope the NIT does for Ole Miss what it did for Baylor last year,” said Maestri, shortly after Memphis native Terrico White scored 27 points to lead the Rebels to an 84-65 win over Troy.
Baylor is a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Baylor went to Madison Square Garden, and look what it does to all those kids coming back. I think you gain more sometimes by going to the NIT, even though it’s disappointing, if you can advance. If you lose to Memphis, then you don’t get much experience, but if you can advance, you get experience that has much more value than losing in the first or second round of the NCAAs,” Maestri said.
Ole Miss advanced to the NIT semifinals in 2008 but was a totally different team in 2009. Attrition swept away the physical frontcourt trio of Dwayne Curtis, Kenny Williams and Jermey Parnell before the season ever began.
Then, the Rebels went on to lose guards Trevor Gaskins, Eniel Polynice and Chris Warren to season-ending injuries.
This much healthier Rebels team caught a healthy break in the first round of NIT play late Tuesday.
Once Arizona State – the No. 1 seed in the Rebels’ NIT bracket – lost to Jacksonville, No. 2 seed Ole Miss secured a homecourt path to the semifinals.
But home hasn’t always been a safe haven for Ole Miss this season. The Rebels were 5-3 on the SEC road but just 4-4 at Tad Smith. Two of those losses were critical February setbacks against Vanderbilt, 82-78, and Florida 64-61, games that could have gotten Ole Miss in the NCAA tournament with different outcomes.
The Rebels also lost home games to Mississippi State and Arkansas.
Kennedy sees an interesting parallel between this team, that is trying to reach New York, and his second Ole Miss team that did.
That season the Rebels’ spot in Madison Square Garden was finalized only after an 81-72 win at Virginia Tech before a raucous overflow crowd against a team that saw itself as the first one left out of the big dance.
“That may have been as good a win as we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Kennedy said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We talked and said, ‘This is appropriate, because the reason we’re in this tournament is because we’ve struggled to win on the road.’ We had to break through on the road.
“This year, the reason we’re in this tournament is because we’ve lost four games in this building. Now, for us to have a pleasant memory, we have to protect home floor. We have that opportunity, and we’ll see what we do with it.”

Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or parrish.alford@djournal.com