Not to say the Rebels aren’t still alive.
Ole Miss is 18-11 (9-7 SEC) on the season and travels to face Alabama (16-12, 9-7) tonight at 7:30 p.m. CT on the SEC Network. At stake is another potential Top 100 RPI win (which would be the third overall for the Rebels), SEC tournament seeding and a road win to pad their postseason resume. Ole Miss has no bad losses on its record, but its lack of marquee wins is problematic.
The Rebels, who close out the regular season against South Carolina on Saturday, needs a 2-0 week and to make some noise in Nashville, Tenn., if it hopes to make a real case for NCAA Tournament selection. Ole Miss has won six of its last eight games.
“I don’t know what they talk about when I’m not around, but when I’m around, we don’t talk about it,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. “If everything falls the way that it possibly could, mathematically, there’s still a chance to finish fourth (in the SEC) if South Carolina dropped its last two. But we still have a chance to be the five seed. We control that based on the games that we have in front of us. That’s kind of our focus. Let’s go and play as good as we can in Tuscaloosa, and let’s come home and play as good as we can against South Carolina. Two good basketball teams. Let’s continue to try to build momentum and be as whole as we can going into Nashville.”
Ole Miss and Alabama are tied with Vanderbilt for the No. 5 seed in the SEC with conference tournament games scheduled to tip off next week. The Rebels own the tiebreaker over the Commodores, as it relates to seeding purposes. Ole Miss has won eight of its last 11 SEC games after starting league play 1-4.
Still, it’s the overall prize — the NCAA Tournament — that is dominating the conversations in the Rebel locker room.
“Obviously the comments between the teammates in the locker room is, guys, we can really do this,” freshman guard Breein Tyree said. “We had some major opportunities that we kind of let slip away — Baylor, Creighton and a bunch of other games that we let slip away in the end. But we’re right in this thing. We can still make this a positive season.”
Ole Miss is No. 70 in the latest Ratings Percentage Index released by the NCAA. Alabama is No. 96. The Rebels are 7-11 against the RPI Top 150, and they’ve suffered no losses outside of the RPI Top 100. They boast the 44th toughest strength of schedule and have played the 77th toughest non-conference schedule per ESPN.com.
Wins over Alabama and South Carolina (No. 28 in the RPI) could potentially be the boost the Rebels need to build real momentum for a bid. A win or two in the SEC tournament would then be the rubber stamp.
“This is kind of a strange team, strange year for me,” Kennedy said. “We seem to solve one problem and another one will pop up. But I do like the fight of our group. They’re finding ways to win games. Not always the most aesthetically pleasing. I thought we’d figured out what our formula was to be successful and that formula changes. But to our guys’ credit, they’re winning games in different ways. In our last outing against Missouri, we defended in the first half as well as we have in quite some time. In the second half, we couldn’t stop anybody. In prior games against LSU and Auburn, we can’t get stops, but we go on these prolific scoring runs where we’re scoring 60 points in a half and making shots and actually look like we know what we’re doing. It’s been an odd group, but I’m proud that they’re finding ways to win games.”
“The mindset of the team is just winning and the next game,” Tyree said. “Obviously we’ve got three more guaranteed games. At this point, we’re just trying to go 1-0 in every game. If we do that, we control our own fate. We’ll end up in the right place at the end of it, and I think we’ll be happy with our position.”
Alabama has lost five of its last eight SEC games after starting conference play 6-2. Freshman forward Braxton Key leads the team in scoring at 12.0 points per game and is third in rebounding at 5.7 rebounds a game. Freshman guard Dazon Ingram is second on the team in scoring at 11.0 points per game and one of only two Tide players averaging in double figures.
Graduate transfer Bola Olaniyan leads the Crimson Tide with 6.4 rebounds per game and Alabama ranks second in the SEC in rebounding at 39.6 per game. The Tide lead the league with a +6.0 rebounding margin, but rank last in scoring averaging (68.9 ppg).
“They’re good at what they do,” Kennedy said. “They’re the best defensive efficiency team in our league, and they’re the best rebounding team in our league. They’re really, really big along the front line. We’re going to have to be better at what we do than they are at what they do. It’s two polar opposites. We’ve been guard-centric, and we’re small on our front line just based on personnel issues. We need (Sebastian Saiz) to stay out of foul trouble. That’s been problematic for him as of late. His numbers have not been as good because a lot of the time he’s been in foul trouble.
“We’ve just got to be good at what we do. We thought we had the turnover situation resolved. A lot of it was with Breein taking on more responsibility. It’s come back on us. We can’t have that Wednesday night. They’re really good at rebounding the ball. They’re not going to give you anything easy, and you’re going to have to score over size in the paint. You’re going to have to make some perimeter shots, and we’ve been Jekyll and Hyde in that regard. Can’t turn it over. And we’ve got to defend more effectively.”