By: Jeff Roberson
Tonight at 8 o'clock, the Pavilion at Ole Miss will debut for all the world to see. It will likely be the most talked about topic of the night. The game, while not secondary, will probably take a back seat in conversation.
Ole Miss hosts Alabama and will play a home game in Oxford somewhere other than C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum for the first time in 50 years.
“Thursday night will be my 320th game as the head coach at Ole Miss,” said Ole Miss’ winningest men’s basketball coach in program history. “I feel like it’s my first game. That’s the truth. That’s how I feel. Just super excited.”
Kennedy admitted to not having been inside the new arena but a handful of times since a ground-breaking ceremony in the summer of 2014.
“(Monday) was the third time I had set foot in this facility,” he said. “I was in it when it was just beginning. I came back a month or two ago. But (Monday) when the court was set up, the baskets were up, the lights were going, it was surreal to me that honestly the vision has come to reality. So many people have been involved in making this happen.”
Now back to tonight’s game, because after all, that’s another reason the building is sold out and the place will be rocking. Ole Miss is 10-3 but is 0-1 in Southeastern Conference play and coming off its worst showing of the season. The Rebels lost 83-61 at Kentucky in a game Kennedy said his team never got anything going.
“I know our team was very, very disappointed with the way we played at Kentucky,” he said. “I was hoping we would play better. We certainly did not play very well. Coming into this new arena and shooting the ball (Monday), feeling it for the first time, I know our guys are really looking forward to playing.”
Alabama is 9-3 but is opening its conference season. The Crimson Tide has had some impressive moments on its way to opening night at the Pavilion. In a four-game stretch in late November and early December, they beat Wichita State, Notre Dame, Southern Mississippi, and Clemson.
Alabama is led by senior guard Retin Obasohan, who is averaging a team-best 13.4 points and tied a career high with 23 points in a recent win over Norfolk State. Junior forward Shannon Hale is the only other Crimson Tide player scoring in double figures at 11.7 points, while junior forward Jimmy Taylor has pulled down a team-best 70 rebounds.
Alabama is limiting opponents to shooting just 38.8 percent from the field, but have a -2.9 rebounding margin on the year and are last in the league averaging 34.5 rebounds a game. The Tide is also last in the league in scoring at 66.4 points per game.
Meanwhile Ole Miss will be playing three of its next four games at home. After tonight, it’s Georgia here on Saturday night. After a trip to LSU next Wednesday night, the Rebels host Florida on Saturday night, January 16.
Senior guard Stefan Moody leads the SEC, and ranks sixth nationally, in scoring at 23.7 points this year. He has scored 20-plus points in eight-straight games, which is the best streak for anyone in the program since 1992. Moody has broken the 30-point mark twice and has made a 3-pointer in 27-straight games, the fourth-longest streak in school history. He is also the SEC career leader in free throw percentage (min. 200 attempts) at 89.39 percent ahead of Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks (88.988 percent) and Kyle Macy (88.978 percent).
Junior forward Sebastian Saiz ranks third in the SEC, and 27th nationally, in the rebounding department, pulling down 9.8 boards. He also ranks fifth in the league with four double-doubles this year. Senior forward Tomasz Gielo is averaging 11.4 points per contest over his last nine games.
Kennedy said he knows there is great anticipation for tonight’s game, and especially so from the opening of the new arena standpoint. And he gets it. He’s been excited about it himself the last few days, now that he has had some time to realize it is ready.
“I knew the building was going to be nice, and I knew it was going to be done to the Ole Miss standard,” he said. “But even I was blown away at how nice the facility. I cannot wait until our fans walk in here and see it for themselves. They are going to be blown away to see how nice it is.
“Thursday night is the start of a new chapter. This is a complete game-changer.”