Landing the One
The horn had sounded for the under-eight media timeout after Xavier pulled off a layup plus the foul. Ole Miss managers assembled chairs on the court for the team to gather around, and up moved players and assistant coaches.
Kennedy waited. He needed a minute.
Unlike Tuesday night, when Ole Miss rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit to stun BYU, there would be no magical comeback. Not this time. No, the No. 11 seed Rebels’ NCAA tournament run ended in the second round here in Jacksonville, Fla., with No. 6 Xavier running away with a 76-57 win.
And Kennedy’s face, covered in bewilderment, told the story.
“There weren’t a lot of expectations for this team,” Kennedy said afterwards, his team finishing 21-13 on the year. “We had stretches where we were playing pretty good basketball. We showed capable. I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to get to the NCAA tournament, because we certainly did not finish our season well.”
For all the accomplishment, the disappointment was there. A fine finish to the season, sure, but it could have been so much more. One more win meant a shot at No. 14 seed Georgia State, who upset No. 3 Baylor, on Saturday with the Sweet 16 on the line. Get to Los Angeles and anything can happen.
Instead, they’re headed home.
“We proved a lot of people wrong,” said senior forward M.J. Rhett, who had 12 points, all in the second half. “It’s just tough, man. This is what I came here for. We made it. I left the OVC just to come to the SEC and show what I could do and help this team and be a leader. We just came up short. I’m happy that we made it, but we could have made a way better run than that.”
“From the outside looking in, we’ve overachieved. But for the men in this locker room, we feel we could have went farther,” junior guard Stefan Moody said. He totaled with a team-leading 14 points on 5 of 18 shooting.
“I’m proud of my guys at the end of the day. We fought to get where we are.”
Ole Miss has two NCAA tournament appearance in its last three seasons. In the last 10 months, only one school, Ole Miss, has been to Omaha, a New Year’s Six bowl and the NCAA tournament.
Put simply, the Rebels are relevant in basketball. Heck, they’re relevant in all major sports. Basketball is trending upwards with the opening of the new arena next season, a marketable star in Moody returning and a veteran coach who has brought sustained success – something Ole Miss has never had in basketball – year in and year out.
The loss to Xavier was more a lesson on what’s needed to take another step more than anything else.
And what’s needed is a transcendent talent.
“We’ve still got some scholarships to give, and we’ve still got some opportunities to bring in impact guys,” Kennedy said. “We introduced the world to Stefan Moody. He’s a guy that’s a dynamic scorer. He’s now got a year under his belt. He’s only going to get better and better and better. Dwight Coleby, (Sebastian Saiz) are two sophomores who took the next step. I thought Anthony Perez really helped us at the end of the year. Martavious Newby, you know what you’re going to get there.
“There’s a lot of good, key returning pieces to the puzzle. We’re happy about what we signed early, and we’re going to go to work on trying to field a competitive team.”
Ole Miss has already added four players for next year – Donte Fitzpatrick, Terence Davis, Rasheed Brooks and J.T. Escobar. The Rebels graduate five, including a pair of top guards in Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White, from the current roster, so a roster spot remains open. Scholarships are year to year. Another could open up. They almost always do in the spring.
Malik Newman is Kennedy’s white whale. Nothing will happen in the spring signing period until the 6-foot-3, 180-pound five-star guard decides, and Ole Miss is in the running with Kansas, Kentucky and LSU. There’s no consensus on where he ends up. The Rebels remain confident they’ll not only be a player in the end, but find a way to reel him in.
Landing Newman would do a number of things. First, boost Ole Miss’ national profile. Second, Kennedy would finally have the foundational piece that has alluded him since Johnny O’Bryant and Ky Madden spurned the Rebels for LSU and Arkansas, respectively, in 2011.
Ole Miss isn’t a destination school for top recruits. It never has been, and it’s got its work cut out of it to ever become one. But adding Newman immediately brings Ole Miss into the conversation for such players. Kennedy can recruit to him, and you can bet there would be a ripple effect in the years to come.
Of course, it all depends on how successful Ole Miss – and as an extension, Kennedy – is with Newman. But he has to get to campus first. Picking up one of the best the nation has to offer could potentially help take Ole Miss basketball to heights unseen.
Really, that’s the missing ingredient. The rest is there. The new arena assured as much.
“We’ve got to get some more primary ball-handlers, some more playmakers,” Kennedy said. “This game comes down to play-making, more so than probably any other (sport). You’ve got to have playmakers.”
Sound like anyone? The Rebels didn’t have enough of them Thursday. They can find one some three hours south of Oxford.
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