As a result, the Rebels were handed a 23-point loss.
The formula is relatively simple. For the Rebels to have success, they have to protect the ball, as well as rebound (especially on the offensive end) and get consistent production out of senior front-court anchor Sebastian Saiz.
They succeeded in two of three areas against Kentucky. Ole Miss out-rebounded the Wildcats 45-42, and Saiz recorded his 17th career, and fourth straight, double-double with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
But it wasn’t enough. Not even close.
“You dig too early of a hole and you start playing desperate basketball,” Kennedy said. “Kentucky is too good of a team to be desperate against.”
For two days in the lead-up to Kentucky, Ole Miss didn’t talk about the weight of its SEC opener or the myriad challenges presented by the Wildcats. No, Kennedy harped on what the Rebels could control. Ole Miss even played some 7-on-5 in practice in preparation for the level of play Kentucky could bring, hammering home the Rebels’ team mantra of energy, focus and toughness.
Words, though, only go so far. And if their season is to mean anything, if their postseason hopes are to be realized, words will have to be put into action. And fast.
“I thought we lost all three areas,” Kennedy said. “If you lose all three areas, you’re certainly not going to beat Kentucky.
“Wisdom is taking someone at their word and implementing it in your life, not having to experience it yourself,” Kennedy said. “Everybody, if they put their hand in the fire, they know it’s hot. We all try to say, ‘Hey, man, that’s hot. Don’t put your hand in there.’ For some reason this team has to put its hand in there.”
The Rebels struggled mightily in many other aspects of the game, namely transition defense and supplemental scoring. Veteran transfer Cullen Neal had zero points, one assist and four turnovers in 17 minutes. Deandre Burnett scored 19 points on 7 of 15 from the floor for one of his better outings in the last few weeks, but he’s been up-and-down, to put it nicely, all year.
Kennedy said the Rebels have to get more.
“My mistake, but Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett, I thought, would be ready for these moments,” Kennedy said. “Even though they’ve not had them with us, they’ve had them. They’ve got to respond as leaders for us.”
Ole Miss is 9-4 overall and 0-1 in SEC games, and despite the ugliness of Thursday, the Rebels still have everything in front of them. They’re No. 49 in the RPI, good for sixth in the conference. But, put simply, they have to start winning. Up next? Back-to-back road trips to Florida and Auburn, respectively.
They’ll take on the Gators — who are No. 2 in all of college basketball in the RPI — Tuesday at 6 p.m. on ESPNU.
“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Kennedy said. “The reality is we’ve got 19 more games. We’ve got to figure it out. It’s only one loss, thankfully. But we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror a little bit and get back to our formula. We all have a formula. We certainly did not follow it (against Kentucky) to have a chance.”