The Ole Miss head coach, who ushered in his fifth season with a 68-60 win over Arkansas State Friday, believes seasons are won or lost well before league games begin in January, mainly because of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which is used to rank teams based upon wins and losses, as well as strength of schedule.
"I've always said, if you don't take care of your non-conference portion of your schedule, then the SEC portion doesn't have as much relevance," Kennedy said. "So make no mistake, this RPI has changed the whole landscape of college basketball."
The RPI went into effect in 1981, but has gained increased notoriety in recent years due to the little separation between teams aspiring for the NCAA Tournament.
In some seasons, Ole Miss has benefitted from the RPI. But in others, as was the case in 2009-10, Ole Miss fell short of the 64-team field. The RPI is what makes Ole Miss' upcoming stretch against worthy non-conference opponents so important.
Ole Miss hosts Murray State Wednesday at 7 p.m.
"People have asked me numerous times, ‘How can a team go 9-7, win the (SEC) West and not get in the NCAA Tournament?' Before the RPI, it was a foregone conclusion (that a team would make the NCAA Tournament)," Kennedy said.
"Ole Miss was a product of that at times. You go 8-8, 9-7, you're in because there is no RPI, which gives more credence to more teams that you otherwise wouldn't think of."
Ole Miss finished with a 24-11 overall record last season, including a 9-7 record in the Southeastern Conference. The Rebels also tied for a share of the SEC West division with in-state rival Mississippi State.
No team from the SEC West made the NCAA Tournament field last season.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State were forced to settle for a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. The Rebels advanced to the NIT Final Four in New York, before being eliminated by Dayton in the semifinals. The Rebels host Dayton Saturday at 6 p.m.
"(The RPI) has changed the whole formula," Kennedy said. "I'm not sure if it's good or bad, but it is what it is. So you certainly have to be cognizant of each and every game, not only trying to garner quality wins, but stay away from damaging losses, because those are hard to overcome."
Welcoming Murray State:
Ole Miss and Murray State will be meeting for the fifth time Wednesday, with the Racers holding a 3-1 record in the series.
Murray State returns eight contributors, including three starters, from last season's NCAA Tournament team that went 31-5 overall. Murray State won the OVC with a 17-1 record a year ago, before knocking off No. 4 seed Vanderbilt in the first round.
Kennedy said Murray State presents a stiff early-season challenge.
"Talented," he said. "Their guards are as good as we'll face, most definitely in the non-league."
Murray State is led by seniors Isacc Miles and B.J. Jenkins. Sophomore Isaiah Canaan, a Biloxi native, appeared in all 36 games for the Racers as a freshman, and led the team in 3-point shooting. The Racers are thin in the frontcourt, having since lost, among others, forward Danero Thomas.
"I think all three (guards) could play in the SEC," Kennedy said. "They're replacing two frontcourt guys off last year's team, but they've got size, they've got athleticism, they've got depth. I like the way they play. They have a unit now that certainly expects to win. We're going to have to play well."
Nelson rusty in debut:
Freshman guard Dundrecous Nelson made his Ole Miss debut in Friday's win over Arkansas State. He was first off the bench in place of senior point guard Chris Warren, who was forced to the sidelines due to early foul trouble.
But Nelson, who had practiced sparingly after suffering a concussion and a sprained ankle earlier in the week, struggled from his first play onward. He immediately turned the ball over in his first possession, while failing to make a shot in the game in three attempts – all 3-pointers.
"The biggest blow to him was the fact that he didn't get an opportunity to play against Delta State," Kennedy said of Nelson.
"He went into that game and the pace was really, really fast. Couple that with he really hasn't practiced but two or three times in the last seven to 10 days, based on the concussion, which kept him out four days, then he came right back and he sprained his ankle. Then you throw in an off-day, and his timing was off, which was evident."
Nelson played a grand total of eight minutes in the win.
Ole Miss trailed Arkansas State at halftime, 32-24.
Shots weren't falling. Warren, easily the team's most prolific scorer, had spent much of the first half on the bench in foul trouble. Ole Miss shot just 33 percent in the first half, including only one make in its nine 3-point attempts.
So Kennedy turned to Warren. And he responded with 26 points on 9 of 15 shooting. It was Warren's 27th career 20-point game, which leads all active SEC players. He also leads all active league players in career points and assists.
It was a typical Warren performance, one Rebel fans are likely to see often this season. Ole Miss will run its offense through Warren this season, considering his ability to score in high volumes on any given night.
But Kennedy said Ole Miss will need more scoring production from other veterans.
"No question," he said. "You have to have three primary scorers to have a chance over the course of a four or five month season. You've got to have three guys that, on any given night, can put up a good number for you."
Zach Graham was the team's second-leading scorer against Arkansas State with 12 points.
Terrance Henry and Nick Williams tied for third with eight points apiece.
"I honestly think we've got four, five guys that, on any given night, can hurt you," Kennedy said. "It just so happens we didn't shoot the ball very well (Friday). We weren't as productive offensively, from an efficiency standpoint, as I would have liked to see.
"But, if you remember, we talked about that. Typically offense, because you stress defense so much early, takes a while to catch up, especially when you're trying to incorporate so many new faces."
After Murray State, Ole Miss welcomes Dayton and Penn State to Tad Smith Coliseum. A home date with Southern Miss is sandwiched between trips to Miami (Fla.) and UALR.
Kennedy said the daunting non-conference slate should provide a good barometer of where the team stands before opening conference play in January.
"Our first seven, when you think about Arkansas State and Murray State, Dayton, Penn State, at Miami, Southern Miss, and then you go back on the road to Little Rock before you even catch your breath. It's going to be a challenge," Kennedy said.
"But we set it up like this, simply because we need to see where we are. These type games, I think you find out a lot about your team."
Random Notes: Ole Miss owns an 18-5 all-time record against current members of the Ohio Valley Conference… The Rebels are 54-13 against non-league foes under Andy Kennedy, with a 38-1 record at home… Warren is third on the Ole Miss career 3-pointers chart and has drained at least one trey in a school-record 46 straight games… Ole Miss boasts a 60-11 record at Tad Smith Coliseum since Kennedy's arrival in 2006-07… The Rebels boast a 23-3 record in the month of November under Kennedy.