Victims of Circumstance

Ole Miss (12-3) opens Southeastern Conference play Saturday at Florida (11-3). Go inside for updates on Ole Miss' position regarding an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, as well as the state of the SEC West.

Andy Kennedy has a passion for basketball.

When he's not conducting a practice or coaching a game, the fifth-year Ole Miss head coach can likely be found on a couch somewhere, his television tuned to any game he can find.

So Kennedy knows the stakes when his team opens Southeastern Conference play Saturday at Florida. Public perception again views the SEC West as down. Among some of its losses include Samford, Campbell, Nicholls State, St. Peters, Jacksonville, Florida Atlantic and Coastal Carolina.

The East held a 27-9 record over the West last regular season.

"It's constantly being battered around," Kennedy said. "Let's don't get caught up in all of that. We're going to have our opportunities. Let's take care of our business."

Ole Miss enters Saturday's game, set for a 7 p.m. tipoff, with a 12-3 overall record, the best among SEC West teams and fourth-best overall, and the nation's No. 57 RPI, according to

Nick Williams

Florida, meanwhile, has an RPI rank of 14. The Gators are 11-3 overall, with wins in six of their last seven games.

"Obviously Saturday is a huge opportunity, but a huge challenge at the same point," Kennedy said. "It's one-sixteenth of an SEC season. That's how we're approaching it. You always want to get off to a good start. I want to make sure that our enthusiasm, that our passion is at a very high level.

"Because without that, we have no chance to go into Gainesville and come out with a win if we're not focused and locked in to the task at hand."

Ole Miss is widely considered the only SEC West school in real contention for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament as it enters its conference schedule. The others, most notably SEC West preseason favorite Mississippi State, appear to have much more work to do.

The Rebels currently hold the division's best RPI win of year. Ole Miss defeated Penn State, ranked 77th in RPI, Nov. 26. Realistically, a win at Florida would improve Ole Miss' postseason resume significantly.

"It's very important to get wins against the East," sophomore Nick Williams said. "The West is down this year; that's what people are saying. We know if we're going to try to make a push for the NCAA Tournament, we're going to have to win some big games."

Zach Graham, one of two seniors on the roster, has a similar view. Graham recently became the 32nd player in school history to reach the 1,000-point plateau when he scored 13 points Wednesday in a win over SMU in Dallas.

"Those are the highly-talked about teams in the SEC," Graham said of the Kentuckys, Tennessees and Floridas.

Zach Graham

"Those wins would probably hold more weight. We still have to look at every game the same, because if we lose to an SEC West opponent that doesn't have a really good record, that could really affect us."

However, Kennedy isn't buying into all the RPI talk right now. He believes any such talk is premature.

Ole Miss has an overall record of 26-51 in SEC openers. The Rebels are looking for their first league-opening win under Kennedy.

"I just don't think it holds any relevance, whatsoever," he said. "I don't have enough time in the day. Now, if I was in the (media's) position, or if I were in sports radio, then it would be something I would talk about. That's the name of the game. I get it.

"But me as a coach, it does me no good to sit around and talk about what we're going to do against Auburn in February. For us, the picture's going to change so quickly over the course of the next month. I really believe it's way too early to be talking RPI in early January. All those things will play out. If you win basketball games, you'll be where you need to be."

Ole Miss closed its non-conference schedule with four straight wins. The Rebels have won nine of their last 10 games. Saturday marks the 10th time in the last 13 seasons Ole Miss has opened conference play on the road.

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