On the Brink

In a season filled with near-misses and supposed must-wins, Ole Miss welcomed Vanderbilt to Oxford Thursday night with a black-and-white proposition. Win or else.

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The Rebels' postseason hopes rode on this game. Bracketologists Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi have routinely written Ole Miss off following SEC losses, only to place the Rebels back squarely on the bubble a game later.

Vanderbilt presented an opportunity. Ole Miss limped into the game with an RPI of 50, according to the most recent RPI rankings released by the NCAA earlier this week. Vanderbilt was a top-30 RPI team.

The end of the NCAA tournament field is, well, bad. Really bad. So bad, such a flawed team as Ole Miss -- one that is severely (worse, in fact) challenged offensively -- can lose and lose and lose, yet still find itself in contention for a berth.

Thursday mattered, possibly more than any game this season.


Not since Ole Miss' 30-point loss to Marquette in November has Ole Miss (15-10, 5-6 SEC) played a worse half of basketball than the first half it put together here Thursday. Yes, Vanderbilt (18-8, 7-4 SEC) is a talented team. But the Commodores are also beatable, especially if the touches of Jeffrey Taylor and John Jenkins are even remotely limited.

Taylor and Jenkins combined for 35 points as Vanderbilt built a 25-point halftime lead. Taylor was unstoppable, pouring in 23 points on 8 of 10 shooting. He made his first seven shots, and set a career-high in 3-pointers made with five in the first half alone.

Taylor and Jenkins finished the game with 28 and 26 points, respectively, and the Commodores walked out of Tad Smith Coliseum with a 102-76 win.

A perfect storm of ineptitude. This was the basketball equivalent to Ole Miss' 52-3 loss to LSU in football. Only Vanderbilt wasn't able to take a knee with four minutes left.

I can only imagine Ole Miss fans wishing for a Friday Night Lights conclusion to this game. You know, the one where Andy Kennedy plays the role of East Dillon head coach Eric Taylor, forfeiting at halftime to the South King Rangers.

Jelan Kendrick, subbing in late in the game
Bruce Newman

"We better get up off the mat quickly," Kennedy said.

Ole Miss went scoreless for nearly seven minutes as Vanderbilt poured in the points in the first half. Then the scene turned ugly, as a student in a crowded student section hurled a cup filled with ice onto the floor, its contents emptied across midcourt.

The student was put in handcuffs. Boos rained down. A frustrating season reached its boiling point. There was nothing left. Ole Miss, previously of a 10-1 record on its home floor, was blown out by Vanderbilt, losers of three out of its last four games.

Making matters worse, Jelan Kendrick and Reginald Buckner had to be separated in the tunnel leading to the locker room following the loss. Buckner, who initially went into the locker room, came back out to confront Kendrick.

"When you play like we played, there's a lot of frustration to go around," Kennedy said of the altercation. "I'm sure some of that got misguided."

Coaches and trainers separated the teammates, but Kendrick refused to go into the locker room. Held back, he stood in front of media, cheerleaders, etc., shouting profanity. He even headed for the door leading out of Tad Smith Coliseum, though he never left.

"I'll figure it out," Kennedy said. "You guys would be amazed at what happens on a day-to-day basis. You got a taste of it tonight. I know emotions were real high, and guys made some comments or some actions that obviously we can't have between teammates."

At one point, Kennedy attempted to pull Kendrick in. However, Kendrick jerked away, continuing with his profanity-laced tirade.

"I've got to hear something, Coach," Kendrick yelled towards Kennedy in a chaotic scene. "I've got to hear something before I go in there."

A low point in the season.

The NCAA tournament is out the window, save for a miraculous run through the SEC tournament next month. But Ole Miss has yet to put together a notable winning streak in its league schedule this year. The Rebels have won back-to-back SEC games once this season.

Up next is No. 1 Kentucky Saturday in Lexington. Yikes. Then another road trip, to Tennessee, follows before a return home to face LSU -- a team Ole Miss lost to by 26 in its SEC opener in January.

Nick Williams
Bruce Newman

Basically, things could get much worse unless this team does an about-face.

"The reality is we have to get on a plane tomorrow and fly to Lexington to play the No. 1 team in the country," Kennedy said. "We've got to quickly try to put this behind us the best way we can."

Where Ole Miss goes from here is anyone's guess. Could Ole Miss reel off an improbable winning streak, catapulting it into the NCAA tournament? Well, yeah. But Charlie Brown could one day kick that pesky football.

Suffice to say, not going to happen.

The real question is whether Ole Miss is even an NIT team. Right now, hard to say. The Rebels aren't playing good basketball. To win, they have to rebound and defend. They've failed at both lately, and have lost four of their last six games as a result.

The inevitable questions about Andy Kennedy's job security will begin to surface more and more after this performance. But those questions can wait for another day.

In full disclosure, and despite my objectivity, I'm a fan of Kennedy. The only knock against him is his inability to reach the NCAA tournament. Performances like tonight will only lend credence to his detractors, fair or not.

For better or worse, Ole Miss has basketball left to play. That may or may not be a good thing.

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