Ole Miss athletics director sees progress, hope for the future

NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  Ole Miss is likely headed to the NIT following its second-round exit in the SEC tournament Thursday night.

The Rebels, 20-12 on the year following an 81-73 loss to Alabama, likely needed to win four games in four days to secure the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which would have marked their third appearance in the last four seasons.

Alas, they’ll have to settle for the consolation bracket. That is, so long as they’re extended an invitation, which athletics director Ross Bjork said Ole Miss would gladly accept. Bracket Matrix currently projects the Rebels as a No. 6 seed in its latest NIT bracketology.

“We’re focused on the NIT,” Bjork said. “We’d certainly accept an invitation.”

Ole Miss has participated in the NIT 11 times, with a combined record of 13-11. The Rebels made three-consecutive appearances from 2010-12, including a semifinals loss to Dayton in 2010, followed by back-to-back first-round losses. They also reached the semifinals in 2008.

Despite the disappointment of missing out on the NCAA Tournament, Ole Miss posted its eighth 20-win campaign in 10 seasons under head coach Andy Kennedy. Ole Miss had seven 20-win campaigns in the 96 seasons prior to Kennedy’s tenure, and he’s just the fifth coach in SEC history to guide his teams to 20-plus wins in at least eight of his first 10 years in the league.

Bjork said he’s pleased with the program’s progress, as well as what the future holds with Kennedy at the helm and the $96-million Pavilion at Ole Miss up and running.

“I think the foundation is set for this program,” he said. “You look at guys that are coming back next year, you look at a transfer who’s sitting out in Deandre Burnett. To me, we’re only beginning with this program. New approach, new attitude, new energy, new recruiting, new building and our fans are energized. The whole program’s energized. We’ve got to capitalize on it. The foundation’s been set, now we gotta go. We gotta get better.”

Ole Miss certainly faced its fair share of adversity this season, most notably with injuries. Sebastian Saiz was sidelined for six games due to a partially detached retina, while Stefan Moody dealt with a hamstring injury and Martavious Newby sat out games with an eye injury of his own.

Bjork said he weighs all factors when assessing the status of Ole Miss basketball.

“Battling adversity with that six, eight-game stretch where Saiz is out, Moody’s out and Newby’s out with his eye deal, to me to overcome all that and still put yourself in position where you’re in the conversation (for the NCAA Tournament) down the stretch, that’s the goal,” he said. 

“You want to be relevant. If we had those games back, what would have happened? We don’t know that.”

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