NEW ORLEANS – For Ole Miss, it would be a better start to March Madness if the Rebels had not had their bouts with January and February Sadness.
But everybody has them. It’s not like the Rebels accomplished nothing. A team that in October was facing an extreme makeover went 8-8 in SEC play, something it hadn’t done in three years.
A team that was losing 1,000-point scorers in Zach Graham and Chris Warren – the latter the third-leading scorer in program history – was talking about its perpetual pursuit of the NCAA tournament. On the surface, it didn’t make sense. You take Chris Warren out of the lineup and get better? How can that be?
Well, it may yet be. Nothing is guaranteed, but the Rebels can be in the conversation with a couple of wins.
It would be better to have won games at Alabama and at home against Florida. The SEC record would be 10-6, the RPI much more bold.
Yes, that would be better. Instead the Rebels are the No. 7 seed in the SEC, the highest rung of the bottom half of the ladder. The carrot of winning the tournament and getting the automatic bid is still out there, but as LSU coach Trent Johnson said on Monday when asked if he thought No. 1 Kentucky was the favorite to win the SEC tournament, “C’mon man.”
From that end, at least the Rebels aren’t in the bottom half of the Big East, where a team that plays on the first day with hopes of running the table will on its third day play a team that received a bye into the quarterfinals and hasn’t played yet.
Things could be better, but they could be worse.
The fact is, Ole Miss has received a favorable draw. It won’t be easy for a team that lacks a prolific scorer and has had bouts of inconsistency through the year. Auburn isn’t great but is scrappy and can make you get down and play on its level. The Rebels had 20 turnovers in their two-overtime loss at Auburn.
Beat Auburn, and Tennessee could represent the last hurdle for the Promised Land the Rebels have sought since 2002. The Vols dominated Ole Miss in the post in a 13-point loss in Knoxville just two weeks ago.
The Rebels will have to find a way to counter that – but if they can, Tennessee won’t be a great shooting team from the perimeter.
Two wins, and Ole Miss can present a very compelling argument. Three wins, and the month gets even better.
The SEC tournament will have to be a building process just as the three straight wins to reach 8-8 – the Rebels’ longest SEC win streak – have been.
Compelling is one thing. Getting that bid is another. Even Moses wasn’t guaranteed anything.
But there’s a little excitement right now for a team that has overcome some adversity and has a chance to do what the Warren and Graham teams never did.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at Djournal.com.