They lost at Georgia on Saturday, making their path to the NCAA Tournament crystal clear. They’ll have to win the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., next week to clinch an automatic bid, otherwise they’ll be left out. Without such a run, their resume — including a 3-9 record against the RPI top-100 — isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.
But while the final two regular season games don’t carry much postseason weight, Wednesday night against Mississippi State is important. Ole Miss (18-12, 8-8 SEC) is hosting its in-state rival in a series that dates back to 1914. The Bulldogs are 13-15 overall and 6-10 in league games.
Not to mention Ole Miss will honor its four seniors in the last home game of their Rebel careers. Among them is Stefan Moody, one of the greatest players in school history and the conference’s leading scorer.
“I was really disappointed in our second-half effort against Georgia,” Kennedy said. “I believe we were up by seven or eight with 13 or 14 to play in the game, and we got hit with a little bit of in-game adversity and didn’t respond the way I would have hoped. My hope is we can regroup. We’ve got a big opportunity Wednesday in our last game at The Pavilion for four of our seniors who’ve been key parts of our program. My hope is they’ll be excited about that.”
The Bulldogs are much-improved since an injury-depleted Rebel team took them to the brink Jan. 23. Mississippi State had opened its league schedule with five-straight losses, but took advantage of injuries to Moody, Sebastian Saiz and Martavious Newby to pick up an 83-77 win.
Mississippi State has since gone .500 in the league, and is a winner in four of its last six conference games. Senior forward Gavin Ware leads the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game and rebounding at 7.5 rebounds per game, but perhaps most impressive has been the play of freshman guard Quinndary Weatherspoon. He leads the Bulldogs in scoring in SEC play at 14.8 points per game.
“I remember recruiting him out of high school, and we were all intrigued with his talent,” Kennedy said. “He had the physical attributes to come in and do what he’s done in year one at this level. I give him great credit, as I do the Mississippi State staff for developing him, putting him in a position to be successful, and then he has really surged to the forefront as one of the best freshmen in all of our league with his play. Confidence is a funny thing, and I think once that kid got his legs under him and really started feeling confident about his ability to perform at this level, he’s been tremendous.”
As for the Bulldogs’ recent streak of success, Kennedy has been impressed. The Rebels have won four of the last five meetings, and Ole Miss is 7-2 all-time on Senior Day under Kennedy. Along with Moody, Tomasz Gielo, Newby and Anthony Perez will be recognized.
“Coming into the season, I had an anticipation of Mississippi State being the team they are right now,” Kennedy said. “Gavin Ware, (is one of) the best low-post scorers in our league. He’s been tremendous for them throughout his career. Craig Sword is a very, very difficult, athletic matchup on the wing. You couple that with the addition of Weatherspoon and Malik (Newman), and I think they’re really playing well right now. Coach (Ben) Howland has them defending at a high level. Offensively, they’ve figured out their identity, and they’ve got guys now who are being very complimentary to one another. I think they’re playing their best basketball at the right time of the year.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. on the SEC Network.