By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The morning after the NCAA tournament field was announced, again without Ole Miss, the mood among the Rebels was one of disappointment but also of acceptance.
“If you’re a player, when you step out on the floor, you’re just trying to win games,” point guard Chris Warren said.
That’s what Ole Miss will try to do Wednesday night at 7 against Sun Belt Conference tournament runner-up Troy, the beginning of the Rebels’ third NIT appearance in four years.
After a late-season stretch in which Ole Miss lost five of six games, the Rebels’ best chance to make the NCAA tournament was by beating Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals. They were unable to do that, and after a 76-65 loss, the Rebels weren’t quite as prominent in world of NCAA speculation.
“This year, we challenged ourselves early. We felt we had an opportunity. We hit a little bit of a lull, but came out of it. Again, we’re a game shy,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “I think we’re just so very close. We have to find a way to get over the hump. That’s where we’ll continue to evaluate our personnel.”
The Ole Miss resume was bolstered by pre-Christmas wins against Kansas State, an NCAA No. 2 seed, and Texas-El Paso.
The Rebels’ 21 regular-season wins equal their highest under Kennedy; their 9-7 SEC regular season is their best under Kennedy.
But in what was considered a down year for the SEC West, Ole Miss did not beat a league team that finished with a winning conference record.
“I’ve got really high goals,” said Kennedy, whose Cincinnati team also played in the NIT when he was interim coach there in 2006. “We’re sitting here with 82 wins and 31 in the SEC, but we haven’t made that next step. It’s, ultimately, my responsibility for us to do that and we’re going to continue to pursue to get this program to where I know its capable of being.”
Troy went 13-5 in the Sun Belt and finished first in the East Division.
The Trojans will arrive with two players with SEC experience. Guard Richard Delk, formerly of Mississippi State, is averaging 12.2 point and 4.7 rebounds. Center Yamene Coleman, formerly of Alabama, averages 10.2 point and 7.8 rebounds.
Warren was a freshman when Ole Miss reached the NIT semifinals in New York.
As a No. 2 seed, the Rebels are guaranteed at least one more home game. If they defeat Troy, the Rebels will play the Memphis-St. John’s winner.
A repeat trip to New York could take them through Arizona State in Tempe.
“You really don’t want to go to the NIT. We set a goal to go to the NCAAs. But we’ll make the best of it, strive in it and run with it,” he said.
That’s the attitude Kennedy hopes to see when the game begins. He said Monday’s workout was a good one.
“I told our team, I’m a basketball coach. As long as there’s basketball left to be played, I’m going to do my job and prepare you guys for the game. You’re here for a basketball scholarship. It’s your responsibility to adhere to your part of the equation.
“As long as there’s basketball left to be played, let’s go play. As we get closer to game time I hope the competitive nature will take over.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.