To say the perception of the program has changed would be a significant understatement, according to head coach Andy Kennedy.
The $96.5-million arena, which is more than 225,000 total square feet and seats approximately 9,500 fans, has opened new doors for Ole Miss both figuratively and literally. Kennedy is in his 10th season. But not until this year has he had an arena to recruit to and sell top-ranked players on.
Kennedy rarely, if ever, took recruits to Tad Smith Coliseum on visits. Those few times he did were for all but guaranteed sellout games. Otherwise, he stuck to the practice facility, an impressive building located at the end of Chucky Mullins Drive.
“What’s a better word than game-changer? It’s a complete game-changer in every regard, even more so than I had dreamt possible,” Kennedy said. “Just walking through it, bringing recruits in there. Not having to worry about what time is the game. My assistants (used) to come to me and say there’s this (prospect) and I think we can get him on campus. We got this on Wednesday night in December. It’s the only time he can come. ‘No, no. You can’t bring him.’ We’d never have a chance to get him. When you walked in Tad Smith, and there’s people in the building, it’s still nice. But when you walk in there and there’s nobody in the building, then you start looking at all the wood paneling and the chimney.
“It’s changed our ability to say, ‘Let’s go, let’s get ‘em in.’ It’s changed our ability to walk them through like right now. It’s like you’re going to the mall. It shows commitment so people can’t say we’re not committed to basketball. That’s over. We went from not having a top-200, 250 arena to having one of the best in the country. It’s amazing my perspective now. Our perspective has changed of what is nice.”
Heightened expectations, from the court to the recruiting trail, have arrived with The Pavilion. Fans are hoping Ole Miss starts to make headway with nationally-ranked recruits.
“So does the head coach,” Kennedy, whose team is 19-11 overall and 9-8 in SEC games, said. “That’s what I expect.”
So far, so good. Ole Miss hosted five players Wednesday night for the Rebels’ game against in-state rival Mississippi State: 2017 guard Jarkel Joiner (Oxford); 2018 prospects Tyler Harris (Cordova, Tenn.), Ryan Boyce (Houston, Tenn.) and Logan Dye (Haleyville, Ala.); and 2019 forward D.J. Jeffries (Olive Branch).
The 6-foot-7, 170-pound Jeffries is considered among the best in his class, a five-star prospect and the No. 10 overall (No. 7 small forward) by Future150.com. Ole Miss is among his early favorites.
“There are other factors other than the arena the reason people choose schools,” Kennedy said. “There’s a lot of factors other than the arena. However, we can at least check that box. It’s no longer an albatross.”
Punter to sit Saturday
Ole Miss is certainly no stranger to the injury bug.
The Rebels lost forward Sebastian Saiz for six games earlier in the season due to surgery to repair a partially detached retina in his eye, as well as guards Stefan Moody (hamstring) and Martavious Newby (eye) for two games apiece.
Tennessee can relate. The Volunteers have been without senior Kevin Punter for the last four games with a stress fracture. Wes Rucker of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Friday head coach Rick Barnes is shutting Punter, who is second only to Moody with 22.2 points per game, down for the remainder of the season.
The Volunteers are 13-17 overall and 6-11 in the SEC. They’ve lost five of their last six games.
“I hate it. I really do,” Kennedy said of Punter’s injury. “I want everybody’s best players to play. I really do. I was a player, and I understand it sucks to be hurt. These kids have worked and worked, and I don’t know Kevin Punter from whodunit, but Rick Barnes, who I respect, just raves about the kid and how he’s battled through this injury. He wanted to play.
“Obviously he’s a tremendous player. But, again, he has not played in a little while. We’re going to do what we do. They’re a difficult matchup. The one thing that playing Mississippi State and playing Tennessee, there’s some similarities to their makeup personnel-wise with the exception of Gavin Ware. Gavin Ware is a load inside. Tennessee does not have that big body but they can really space you at four different places, not necessarily with great shooting although they’re capable. They’re going to spread you, a guy like Tomasz Gielo, a guy like Marcanvis Hymon, (Saiz) at times, are going to be out of their comfort zone and have to guard perimeter.”
NCAA Tournament a long shot for Rebels:
No matter what happens Saturday, Ole Miss will head to Nashville, Tenn., next week likely needing to win the SEC tournament to secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Ole Miss ranks No. 90 in the latest RPI released by the NCAA, while Tennessee checks in at No. 143. The Rebels are 3-9 against the RPI top-100, with wins over No. 49 Vanderbilt, No. 57 Alabama and No. 84 Georgia.
“I would have never thought when I saw it on the schedule that winning at Memphis would have no teeth. It has no teeth. Winning at UMass has no teeth,” Kennedy said. “We hurt ourselves by losing in the first round of our multi-team event (to George Mason) early. We’ve put ourselves in this predicament. We haven’t even put ourselves in a position to start our argument. You view a team on its totality of work. We missed our best post player (Saiz) for six games, of which we lost three of those. Stefan Moody in one of our losses, and if he would been healthy in the one that he did play (South Carolina), that would have taken another loss of the board. Those are arguments that could be made if you put yourself in a position to make that argument.
“Winning Saturday is going to be very, very difficult. Does it help your bottom line as it relates to NCAA Tournament? No. Your first round in the SEC tournament, regardless of your seed, is that going to help you? No. But then (if you win) you get opportunities, and we’ll have to go through a couple to even get to the finals. If we’re playing on Sunday, I think the conversation is completely changed. Does it mean that we still may need to get the automatic? We didn’t know that in 2013. I was asking everybody, and then the guy who chairs the committee says we were in regardless of the outcome of the game. Long answer to say I don’t know.”
Tipoff is set for 11 a.m. on the SEC Network.