Off the Mat

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No matter what happens today, win or lose, give Andy Kennedy credit.

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First, Ole Miss shouldn't be in this position - firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble, even after two wins in as many days to reach the championship game of the SEC tournament against top-seeded Florida on ABC at 12 p.m. CST.

Two sub-200 RPI losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State were, and still are, inexcusable.

Rather, Ole Miss (25-8) should be regular-season champions, in the tournament with little or no drama on this, Selection Sunday. If the Rebels beat the Gators to close out their stay here in Nashville, they'll earn an automatic bid. They'll take the decision out of the committee's hands. If they lose, well, they'll sweat out the selection process, though I think they'll ultimately hear their name called.

Either way, they put themselves in this spot.

"We knew after the Mississippi State debacle that we had hurt ourselves," Kennedy said following the Rebels' 64-52 win over Vanderbilt yesterday. "But as we got on that bus, and it was a tough bus ride home, there was nothing that we could do about it. Only thing we could do was focus on the next opportunity."

There were two regular-season opportunities left: fellow bubble team Alabama and a surging LSU team in Baton Rouge. Ole Miss won both. The win at LSU snapped a five-game road losing streak.

"We stuck together, man," guard Nick Williams said. "When nobody else believed in us, we believed in ourselves."

What followed was the SEC tournament. The Rebels said all week they knew what was at stake. Win to keep hope alive. "Win the whole thing," senior forward Murphy Holloway said earlier this week. "Leave no doubt." A loss, any loss, would likely mean another trip to the NIT.

They had to prove they belonged.

Andy Kennedy
USA TODAY images

"We've had a saying on our wall in the practice facility. ‘Earn the right.' That's what they've done," Kennedy said. "I'm proud of them for that."

He's right, you know. They have earned the right. Friday night was March Madness at its finest, a Derrick Millinghaus floater opening the door for a resurgent weekend, paired with a runaway win over Vanderbilt a day later.

But Kennedy has earned the right, too. Earned the right to continue leading Ole Miss basketball. Earned the right to silence his critics. Earned the right to pace the sidelines as an NCAA tournament head coach.

He's earned that right.

Kennedy has led the Rebels - who were left for dead by many, this writer included, after the disaster in Starkville - to within ear shot of the Big Dance. They're not a lock for a bid, according to most bracketologists. Not with their so-so profile, and current position ever so close to the cut line.

Their RPI is 50 and their strength of schedule is 143. They're 2-4 against the RPI top-50, 8-6 against the top-100, and have a Sagarin rating of 40. Their quality wins include Missouri twice, Tennessee twice and Alabama. Compared to teams joining the Rebels on the bubble (Alabama, LaSalle, UMass and Tennessee), Ole Miss has more top-100 RPI wins than any other team.

"We're really kicking ourselves, because we should've won the SEC," guard Marshall Henderson said. "We lost three road games to three of the four bottom teams in the SEC. We should've won the thing and be sitting real nice right now.

"You can't change the past. Take what it is, control what we can control."

Kennedy has led Ole Miss to four straight wins. The Rebels are on the cusp of reaching the Big Dance for the first time since 2002.

They could have closed up shop. Message boards and social media erupted after the loss, fans mostly directing their anger and frustration at Kennedy and what appeared to be another disappointing finish.

Andy Kennedy
USA TODAY images

Me? I thought the season was over, and after speaking with multiple sources, felt it necessary to speculate on whether Kennedy was possibly nearing his end as head coach.

Premature, as these final few weeks have proven.

Kennedy is the winningest coach in Ole Miss history. He's 150-86 at Ole Miss, and with his team's win Saturday, he moved past Billy Donovan and Rick Stansbury for the fourth-most wins by a head coach in their first seven seasons in the SEC at one school.

But as Kennedy has said before, coaches are judged by NCAA tournament appearances. He's never been there. After the loss to Mississippi State, there was reason to doubt if he ever was going to get there.

Winning cures all.

"Sunday, you got a chance to do something that's special that no one can take away from you for the rest of your life," Kennedy said. "You got a chance to play for an SEC championship."

And to prove everyone wrong one last time.

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