Wednesday night may be the biggest game against a 7-13 team that Andy Kennedy will ever coach.
On paper, it is expected that Ole Miss will defeat its rival, Mississippi State – something it’s done four times in 12 meetings with Kennedy as coach.
It’s progress. Kennedy’s predecessor, Rod Barnes, was just 4-13 against the rival, but Kennedy’s .333 win percentage can’t be defined as success.
Ultimately, as Kennedy notes, the NCAA tournament is the measuring stick. True, and it’s quite possible he could lose twice to the Bulldogs and be forgiven if the Rebels win every remaining regular season game. That would be enough to get Ole Miss into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
That scenario is unlikely, however, and it’s best not to have a loss to an RPI 232 team on your resume. The SEC has four teams with RPIs of 150 or worse, and for purposes of resume-building, you don’t want to lose to those guys.
Ole Miss has been close to the NCAA multiple times with Kennedy – who is three wins from becoming the winningest coach in school history – but has played in the NIT five times in six seasons.
Few Ole Miss coaches have won like Kennedy, but resources at Ole Miss are improving. The practice facility is a sparkling jewel on the upper west side of campus, and gears are shifting on the new arena, though not quickly enough for some.
Kennedy, it should be noted, increased talent and won at Ole Miss before the practice facility opened.
While the NCAA tournament remains the unconquered hill, the administration in place is different than when Kennedy was hired.
Athletics director Ross Bjork, who will soon complete his first year on the job, has made tough personnel decisions at Western Kentucky and at Ole Miss.
The NCAA tournament is the measuring stick, but the MSU rivalry, in every sport, lurks nearby. If the Rebels fall short of that goal and split this season’s MSU series, critics will point to those games.
Winning the football game against MSU, which was sliding after a fast start, was important enough for Bjork to allow students to rush the field, a violation of SEC policy.
On the court, the Bulldogs are down right now. Ole Miss has a talented and experienced team, albeit a thinner one following injuries to Nick Williams and Aaron Jones.
This is a chance for Kennedy and Ole Miss to assert itself in the rivalry. That can only help in attracting more of Mississippi’s top talent which has often seemed to map a course to Starkville.
It doesn’t matter that MSU has a new coach and a struggling team.
Rivalry memories last a long time, and the Rebels have a chance to create good ones twice this year.
Parrish Alford (email@example.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.