The Other Side
Andy Kennedy knows the NCAA tournament bubble all too well.
He’s just happy to be on the right side of it this time.
Ole Miss (20-12, 11-7 SEC) is back in the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in school history and the second time under Kennedy, who’s led the Rebels to seven 20-win seasons in his nine years as head coach. But their status was in doubt following their loss to South Carolina in the SEC tournament last week, with some bracket projections leaving Ole Miss out altogether as a weekend of meaningful games wrapped up.
“Our guys were really down,” Kennedy said. “I know they’re very excited about what comes next.”
What comes next is the Big Dance. The No. 11 seed Rebels are set to face BYU (25-9, 13-5 WCC) in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday night at 8:10 p.m. CST. The game will be broadcast by truTV.
In the end, Ole Miss actually had little to worry about. As the final seedings showed, Ole Miss made its way into the field rather comfortably despite the loss, the fourth for the Rebels in their final five games. They were 43rd. Or, more specifically, the first of the last four in.
Had surprise entrant UCLA not made the field, Ole Miss would have had a first round bye.
“Sometimes it’s not so much what you do than what the people you’re competing against do,” said Kennedy, who last led Ole Miss to the tournament in 2013, where the Rebels upset Wisconsin in the first round. Kennedy is making his ninth trip overall as a player and coach.
“I feel like we’ve had teams that had equally as strong resumes but maybe the field was a little stronger and we get pushed out.”
True enough, a number of Kennedy’s former teams have come ever-so-close to reaching the NCAA tournament only to fall short – a few of which, one could argue, had a resume as good or better than his current group.
In 2007-08, Ole Miss jumped out to a 13-0 start to the season and a No. 15 national ranking. However, the Rebels, who would go on to win 24 games, faded in SEC play (7-10) and entered the conference tournament in need of at least two wins to make their RPI number work.
Ole Miss matched those 24 wins in 2009-10 and won a Western Division title. The Rebels were ranked in the polls for nine weeks and barely missed earning a berth. Why? Their 9-7 SEC mark – including two losses to unranked in-state rival Mississippi State – and a perceived lack of quality wins. Ole Miss, despite a respectable RPI rank of 55, was 2-7 against the RPI top-50.
Cruel was 2011-12 when Ole Miss won five out of their last six games – two in the SEC tournament – to reach 20 wins. Five losses in February, as well as non-conference losses to Marquette, Southern Miss and MTSU, were ultimately the Rebels’ undoing, and an unofficial play-in game of sorts with Vanderbilt all but sunk their hopes.
Suffice to say, NCAA tournament selection is an inexact science, and for bubble teams finding a way in usually requires not only the right numbers, but a little help.
“This year we certainly did not close as strongly as I would have hoped,” Kennedy said. “But (the selection committee) talks about looking at your collective body of work.”
This season the Rebels certainly helped themselves with 11 road wins, including resume-building wins at Oregon and at Arkansas. Arizona, a No. 2 seed and the sixth overall team according to the committee, was the only other team to win at Oregon this season. The Wildcats are 31-3.
Ole Miss settled at No. 55 in the RPI and was 2-3 against the RPI top-30. The Rebels won eight games to nine losses versus top-100 teams, and their strength of schedule was 27th in the nation by ESPN.com.
Still, it didn’t hurt that other teams on the bubble or attempting to play their way in – UCLA, Texas A&M, Richmond, Illinois, Miami (Fla.), UConn and Old Dominion – all lost. It can be argued the exclusion of some of Kennedy’s past teams was due in no small part to “bid stealers” – teams who would have otherwise been cast aside had they not earned automatic bids by winning their conference tournaments.
This season, Wyoming was pretty much all alone in swiping a bid from tournament hopefuls.
“At the end of the day, we’ve been to two of the last three NCAA tournaments,” Kennedy said. “My hope is we’ll just go play well.”
Random Notes: Ole Miss posted a 4-7 mark against the NCAA tournament field this year. ... Since the NCAA expanded to 68 teams in 2011, at least one First Four team won multiple games each year. ... Dating back to 1985, 17 teams selected as a No. 11 seed have advanced to the Sweet 16. ... Seniors Aaron Jones, Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White will be making their second trip to the NCAA tournament. They’re just the seventh senior class with at least two trips. ... Ole Miss is 4-7 all-time in the NCAA tournament.
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