Survival of the Fittest

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Four schools in the last 26 years have won four games in four days in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament -- Mississippi State (09'), Georgia (08'), Arkansas (00') and Auburn ('85).

Ole Miss is vying to become the fifth.

The Rebels earned the No. 3 seed in the West with a 19-12 (7-9 SEC) regular-season record. They draw East No. 6 seed South Carolina today at 2:30 p.m. CT. Ole Miss won its most recent game, a home contest against Arkansas Saturday.

The winner would advance to play East No. 2 seed Kentucky Friday.

"Excited to be here," head coach Andy Kennedy said. "This is a new life for everybody in the tournament, most definitely for a team in the situation we're in. For us, it's about survival and advance. And our goal is to play well enough on Thursday to have the opportunity to play Friday."

Warren, Ole Miss hoping a win today provides a spark
Courtesy: Associated Press
Ole Miss lost its only meeting with South Carolina (14-15, 5-11 SEC) this season. The Gamecocks have lost eight of their last nine games, with their lone win coming over Ole Miss.

"We feel like we're playing better and are in a good frame of mind heading into the game," South Carolina head coach Darrin Horn said. "We feel like our team, with the depth that we have and over the long-term, is built for this time of year."

New life. Survival. They're simple yet appropriate words when describing Ole Miss' precarious postseason positioning.

The NCAA Tournament is the dream, albeit a long-shot, scenario. Ole Miss hasn't sniffed the Big Dance since its last appearance in 2001-02. The NIT, though, has become a regular destination. Still, the Rebels are in no way guaranteed a spot in the secondary field entering today's game.

"What gives me hope is we've shown capable," Kennedy said. "We're not hoping for something we haven't seen (as coaches). We just need to see it more consistently."

But the SEC Tournament hasn't been kind to Ole Miss. The Rebels have a 23-47 record in 48 all-time appearances. That includes its only tournament championship in 1981.

And in Atlanta -- hosting the tournament for the first time since 2008 and ninth time in the last 14 years -- the overall record is worse. Ole Miss has a 4-11 record in the Georgia capital. The Rebels have advanced to the semifinals twice in the Georgia Dome, most recently in 2007.

"What has happened in the past has absolutely zero to do with this team and this year," Kennedy said. "It's really about us and South Carolina. We've been consistently inconsistent in a number of areas, and that's something that's got to get corrected if we want to stay."

For seniors Chris Warren and Zach Graham, this week marks their final time participating in the SEC Tournament. In each of their previous three seasons, Ole Miss was eliminated in its opening game, including a 76-65 ouster at the hands of Tennessee in 2010.

Warren and Graham, two of the winningest players in program history, want to stay a while, to lead a team so up and down this season.

More than anything, however, this is an opportunity to close out their careers in a memorable way. A win over South Carolina could provide the spark for a run, according to Warren.

"I've felt a sense of urgency since the beginning of the season," Graham, playing in his home state, said. "With our team, it just comes down to focus. When we're focused and ready to play and ready to come out and play hard, we do fine."

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