Another Turn

Ole Miss (18-8, 9-4 SEC) returns home to face Tennessee (14-11, 6-7) tonight at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

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The pressure was off and Andy Kennedy looked ahead.

Mississippi State was a win Ole Miss had to have, but not for the reasons most who follow the rivalry would expect. The game, a 71-65 final, was less about the in-state rivalry between the schools than the NCAA tournament ramifications it carried.

At least for one side, anyway.

Mississippi State entered the game with a borderline 200 RPI, the worst in the Southeastern Conference. The Rebels and their postseason resume could ill afford such a loss. While they are, and were, firmly projected by national pundits as an entrant into the NCAA tournament, there’s still work to be done.

Ole Miss isn’t guaranteed anything – yet.

“When you’re playing a game like this, especially the last few years, it puts a lot of pressure on your guys because it’s everything to lose and not a lot to gain,” Kennedy said. “Their RPI numbers are so bad; they have just not had much success overall. As a result, if you lose this game, it really hurts your numbers. It would have affected us this year if we hadn’t have gotten it done.”

With the win, the fourth consecutive in the series and resulting in the first season sweep of Mississippi State since 1998, Ole Miss climbed to No. 33 in the latest RPI rankings released by the NCAA. The Rebels are 18-8 overall and 9-4 in SEC play. They’ll play host to Tennessee (14-11, 6-7 SEC) tonight at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

Jerry Palm of CBS has the Rebels, who have won seven of their last eight SEC games for the first time since 2000-01, as a No. 9 seed playing No. 8 Ohio State in Louisville in his latest bracketology. Ole Miss is 7-5 against the RPI top-100. Tennessee is ranked No. 81.

“We have to continue to improve and continue to stack wins,” Kennedy said. “But it’s not over. It’s irrelevant. On Selection Sunday, we’ll all know. The tournament’s not today. We’ve got three weeks to grind through, and it’s a discipline. You cannot allow yourself to look beyond the next game. You look up in March, and hopefully you’ll like your view.”

For the second week in a row, Ole Miss is dealing with a Thursday-Saturday swing.

They were 1-1 in games against Florida and Arkansas, the loss a last-minute, one-point defeat at home a week ago today. Meanwhile, in its most-recent action, Tennessee lost to No. 1 Kentucky, 66-48, on Tuesday. The Volunteers have posted a 4-2 mark on the road in SEC games. Senior guard Josh Richardson leads the team in scoring at 15.8 points per game.

The Rebels have been here before. But are they better equipped for another quick turn? Kennedy said that remains to be seen. This is Ole Miss’ first time facing Tennessee this season, and the Volunteers certainly present a challenge.

“Quick turn. We’ve done this Thursday-Saturday last week. Similar outcome, come down the stretch and made a play,” Kennedy said. “My hope is we can get back, get rested, get prepared for a very difficult Tennessee team.

“This is a little more challenging because we haven’t played Tennessee all year. They play a different type matchup-zone. We’re going to have to have a productive day (Friday). My hope is Rebel nation will be out in force for us.”

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