Ole Miss is entering the final weeks of the 2015-16 season, and if the Rebels have it their way, Thursday against Alabama in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., will kick off a memorable close that ends in the NCAA Tournament.
At 20-11 overall, including a 3-9 mark against RPI top-100 teams, they likely need to win four games in four days to claim an automatic bid. But there’s an opportunity to, at the very least, make a case should they pick up wins over Alabama and Kentucky — who rank No. 73 and No. 13 in the RPI, respectively — in the coming days.
But, again, Kennedy and Moody are staying in the here and now. The Crimson Tide were a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament two weeks ago following a five-game SEC winning streak. Now they sit at 17-13 overall, having lost four of they last five.
“We’re coming in with pretty good momentum coming off our last two,” Moody said. “The ones we needed to get, we got them. Guys were playing well, so we’re just going to ride off of that. We know we need four, but we’re not really stressing that fact. We just know we want to get Bama. That’s the first one. That’s the one we need to get.”
When the time comes, they might allow themselves to reflect on the what-ifs and the could-have-beens of the season. What if Moody hadn’t gotten hurt against South Carolina? What if Sebastian Saiz hadn’t have missed six games? What if the non-conference scheduled had played out differently?
Alabama is all that matters. The Rebels are 30-51 overall in 53 SEC tournament appearances, and they’ve reached the championship game five times. They most recently took home the title in 2013.
“I think you can start making the argument if you can start winning games,” Kennedy said. “(Alabama’s) numbers speak to the fact that they’d be a quality opportunity for us. Then you play Kentucky. Kentucky, despite not having five, six, seven first-round picks, still has the SEC player of the year in Tyler Ulis. They have another dynamic freshman in Jamal Murray — maybe the best natural scorer (Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s) had in his time there. They’ve got long, talented McDonald’s All-American after McDonald’s All-American on that front line, so certainly not an easy task, but one in which I know our guys would be excited about.
“If you have an opportunity to get past there and play on Saturday, now you can start looking realistically at the body of work. You can factor in that Sebas missed six games, of which we lost three. You can factor in the Moody situation and the Martavious Newby situation. Martavious Newby is really the heart and soul of our team. He’s our best perimeter defender, got a double-double on Saturday at Tennessee, and he was out for four games.”
Ole Miss could have helped its NCAA Tournament case by stacking wins on wins in the non-league portion of its schedule. The Charleston Classic in November, for example, featured the No. 3 overall team in the country, Virginia, as well as Seton Hall, who is currently ranked No. 34 in the RPI.
The Rebels, however, lost in the first round to George Mason. They never saw Virginia, and they lost by double-digit points to the Pirates. Other wins over UMass, Georgia State and Memphis — three teams viewed as NCAA Tournament contenders in the preseason — ended up having no teeth.
Ole Miss is lacking quality on its resume, making the task in Nashville all the more clear.
“It’s one of the most difficult things,” Kennedy said of non-conference scheduling. “You try to do the best you can in scheduling balance and giving your team an opportunity in the non-league to notch quality wins. We thought we had done that. But then sometimes basketball changes on you, and those things are beyond your control.
“All we’re focused on right now is we’ve won four of our last five. I feel like we’re whole, and we go in finishing sixth in the regular season at 10-8 in the league, five-straight years of .500 or better in the SEC for the first time in our program’s history. And, honestly, us and Kentucky are the only teams in the league that can say that. We’ve just got to make a run. We’re not really thinking about winning four games in four days. We’re thinking about winning Thursday.”
Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Kennedy putting pieces together for 2016-17
Whether Ole Miss finishes in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT, another season is almost in the books. Soon enough, Kennedy will have to turn towards shaping his roster for next season, and that includes some potential additions when the spring signing period opens next month.
Kennedy signed five players in the fall: point guard Breein Tyree, center Karl's Silins and forwards Nate Morris, Justas Furmanavicius and Tyrek Coger. Furmanavicius is considered a stretch four in the mold of current Rebel forward Tomasz Gielo, while Morris and Coger bring much-needed size to a front court lacking in depth behind Saiz and Marcanvis Hymon, who’s had a breakout season of sorts as a redshirt freshman.
But there’s more to come.
“We will add multiple players in the spring,” Kennedy said. “We try to take a stern evaluation of our current state of affairs, and then we try to make sure that we answer any of the questions as it relates personnel moving forward.”
Kennedy is excited about the development of Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, Terence Davis, and Hymon — all of which gained valuable experience this season and were instrumental in keeping Ole Miss’ head above water when the rash of injuries hit. Saiz, of course, is the anchor of the front line, while Rasheed Brooks returns with a number of starts under his belt.
But not to be forgotten is Deandre Burnett, a 6-foot-2 Miami (Fla.) transfer who Kennedy believes will immediately step in off the ball as the team’s primary scorer. Burnett sat out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. He has two years of eligibility left.
“No one had ever heard of Marshall Henderson until he came here and was able to do the things that he did in two years,” Kennedy said. “They said, ‘Oh my goodness, what are you going to do now that Marshall’s gone?’ No one had ever heard of Stefan Moody, and here were are talking about him as one of the greatest in the history of our program.
“Deandre Burnett’s been in our program for a year. He’s the best natural scorer I’ve ever coached.”
Burnett is a former four-star recruit. He averaged 37 points per game to finish third in the nation in scoring as a senior at Coral City High School in Miami in 2012, earning Parade All-American honors. He sat out his first season in Miami due to wrist surgery, but he appeared in 28 games as a redshirt freshman, totaling 195 points, 56 rebounds, 18 assists and 14 steals in 488 minutes.
He scored in double digits in seven games.
“Tremendous worker,” Kennedy said. “He’s going to take on that scoring role without blinking an eye. I’m really excited about the pieces we signed early, and we’ll continue to evaluate and add some pieces late to continue in our quest to try and hang banners in the brand-new Pavilion at Ole Miss.
“I think we can add help along all positions. I do feel fairly certain about our five, because I think Sebas is going to be a guy that is going to anchor us in there, but we need size along our front line. We need some versatility, we need some added depth in our back court. We’ll be looking at any and all opportunities. You’d be amazed (with) the perception of the program, with the energy and the visibility that The Pavilion has brought us, coupled with the fact that we’ve continued to have consistent success. It’s going to open the doors for us in areas that have never been opened before.”