Ole Miss (10-2) opens SEC play Saturday at No. 10/11 Kentucky (10-2), where the Rebels are 2-49 all-time, with their only win in Rupp Arena coming in 1998. Ole Miss has opened its league schedule on the road 14 times in the last 18 years. The Rebels lost in overtime at Kentucky a season ago.
“I try not to remember how many times I’ve been in there because it’s never worked out very well when we leave,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know what this is for me personally as the head coach for Ole Miss going in there. I’ve gone in there and gone against John Wall and Demarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. I remember going in against Anthony Davis, and then last year against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Harrison twins and Trey Lyles with a big steal when we were up one with 30 seconds to play. There have been a lot of great players since (Kentucky head coach John) Cal(ipari’s) been there and I’ve been the head coach of Ole Miss going in there.
“Scouting this team, I still look at a team that’s 8-0 in that building, and Jamal Murray may be as good a guard as I’ve seen come through there from a talent standpoint. Tyler Ulis is the fastest, most difficult guy to stay in front of in college basketball. They still have long, athletic front-court guys. I don’t think it’s going to be any less formidable than it’s always been.”
Ole Miss will break in its new, state-of-the-art, $95 million arena Jan. 7 against Alabama. The Pavilion will have a capacity of 9,500 fans and will include a number of first-class amenities, from a private student concourse to three premium club areas for fans.
A new era of Rebel basketball is on the horizon, and Kennedy is certainly aware of the significant step his program is taking with Ole Miss soon to play games in an arena not named Tad Smith Coliseum for the first time in decades.
But with the Wildcats on deck, there simply isn’t any time to wax nostalgic and dream of future possibilities. Murray leads Kentucky with 16.7 points per game, and he’s averaging 19.0 pig over his last five. Ulis is second on the team at 12.8 pig. He’s dished out a team-best 61 assists.
“I don’t even really think about it, and I know it’s crazy,” said Kennedy, who picked up his 200th win as Ole Miss head coach earlier this season. Kennedy is the all-time winningest coach in school history with a 202-116 record in 10 seasons.
“We finished up Tad Smith, and it was great that the fans came out. I’m glad that we were able to pull (the Troy game) out. We needed it on a number of fronts, the biggest being to send it out on the right note. I haven't really thought about it. We’re in prep for Kentucky. When they clear us to get into the gym, we’ll get in there and start getting some shots up and then try to practice in there maybe a couple of times before we actually play the games. I guess then when we’re standing in there and we’re looking around, we can start feeling it. The times I’ve been in it it was still very much a construction site. Even though it’s exciting, when you see the building and you see the newness and how nice it is, to me it’s still something I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about until we’re actually in the building.”
Ole Miss has come close at Kentucky before only to fall short. Last season the Rebels faced a Wildcat team that had looked dominant throughout the season and rolled into the game No. 1 in the country. The Rebels held the lead late, and now-departed guard Jarvis Summers actually had a chance to win the game, but his 3-point attempt at the end of regulation was no good.
Kentucky went on to win in overtime, 89-86. A number of the players who participated in the oh-so-close loss - Stefan Moody, Sebastian Saiz, Martavious Newby and Anthony Perez - will get another shot. Perhaps no players is more motivated than Moody. He scored 25 points, but he exited in the final minutes of regulation due to cramps and was unavailable for overtime.
“He certainly played well,” Kennedy said. “I obviously watched the game in preparation for Saturday. The result was the same, so it still didn’t make me feel very good. We had opportunities against an incredible Kentucky team that was on an incredible run at the time. The guys who were in that game, my hope is that they’ll go in with some confidence knowing that we were close and that we have an understanding of how well you have to play to give yourself a chance in that building.
“Our guys are super excited. This is the Mecca. You go to Rupp Arena, this is something you dream of. Our guys are really excited, especially our newcomers. A guy like Tomasz Gielo, this is a dream come true for him. Stefan Moody, who had a good game and we were competitive to the bitter end but we left dissatisfied. Even though, as a coach, there are other venues I’d rather open SEC play, I’m sure for him, he’s excited about the opportunity. We know we’re going to have to go in and play well. The formula doesn’t change. You can’t turn it over. You’ve got to do a decent job of battling them on the glass, which we’ve done pretty good this year. We’ve got to make open shots when they’re there. You’ve got to make layups and free throws, and you’ve got to defend your paint. That’ll be the same approach we’ve always taken going in, and my hope is we can be a little better this year.”
And when the game is over, win or lose, the Rebels will move into their all-new home, though the midseason move will be somewhat awkward.
“Certainly it’s not ideal,” Kennedy said. “I’ve never gone through a transition where midseason you change your home venue. I’m not sure it’s something that happens very often midseason, especially when you’re getting into league play. But the timing is what it is. To me, home court advantage is the crowd and the energy you generate from the crowd for your team. Very few times do they ever practice in the place in which they play Obviously, for us, Alabama is our opener. So the first time they’ll be in that building will be on game day. At least we’ve been in there a couple of days prior. Each and every game we’ll start to develop some familiarity. But there’s not question there’s going to be a transition.”