The Rebels have been almost good enough to beat a lot of SEC teams this year.
Perhaps a surprise NCAA tournament at-large big will come today, but the odds are long, the control not their own. The control belonged to them Friday, but problems were the same. Foul trouble, offensive lulls, opponent free throws.
The Rebels lost 76-65. The popular theory was had they won they’d have been a tournament lock.
But there has been too much almost in this season and not enough improvement to get over the hump.
Going 12-for-25 at the free throw line against the Vols was unfortunate but consistent with the way this season has gone and left Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy lamenting the problems he’s lamented before.
When Bruce Pearl had his players body up on Chris Warren, the Vols underscored how important he is to the Rebels’ offense. Terrico White, Zach Graham, Terrance Henry and Murphy Holloway have been productive scorers for periods of time. White has made clutch baskets before, but none of them has been the clutch performer that Warren has. None took over the game when Warren drew all the attention.
The second half underscored that against an NCAA tournament-type team, as Warren goes, so go the Rebels.
Tennessee clamped down on Warren and the Rebels’ 3-point shooting in the second half. Ole Miss clamped down on the Vols on the perimeter as well. The difference was Tennessee responded by getting out in transition and getting to the free throw line. Different players made big plays, right down to reserve post play Renaldo Woolridge, who had a 3-pointer, a rebound and a key blocked shot in four minutes of play.
Ole Miss had no response.
The Rebels have been unable to pick up a quality win in the SEC in five attempts, so today they pin their hopes on pre-Christmas wins over Kansas State and UTEP.
The body of work should be rewarded, and timing should not downgrade those quality wins, but over the remainder of the season the Rebels did not show enough improvement to play their way into the big boy tournament. They went 9-7 in the SEC without defeating a team that finished plus-.500 in what the selection committee will consider an average conference.
In the big picture of things, the program has improved. A winning SEC record is something Ole Miss hasn’t had since 2002 when it made its last NCAA appearance. The shared Western Division title represents the best finish since Kennedy’s first year in 2007.
At the end of the day, expectations were higher, the wins not enough to meet them in a down year for the conference.
That makes for anxiety today, the desired result coming only if enough teams around the nation also fail in their own critical games.
The Rebels beat the average SEC teams this year, and they almost beat some good ones.
The likelihood is today they will almost make the NCAA tournament.
Parrish Alford (email@example.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.