An uphill climb to claim an NCAA Tournament berth awaits Ole Miss in Nashville, Tenn., this week.
Whether leading scorer Deandre Burnett will be available to help traverse the terrain — a four-game gauntlet starting Thursday night against Auburn or Missouri — is yet to be determined.
Burnett didn’t play Saturday against South Carolina. The Rebels won anyway, 75-70, to move to 19-12 overall and 10-8 in SEC games. Ole Miss is No. 68 in the latest NCAA RPI rankings, meaning the Rebels don’t necessarily need quantity of wins, but quality to make a real postseason case. T
And they may very well need to simply take home the tournament championship. They last won in 2013.
“We need more quality wins,” senior forward Sebastian Saiz said. “I feel like if we can get one or two more, I think we can be in it. It’s a great time. The experience is amazing. I try to tell all these guys it’s really hard to get in. We got in the last day (two years ago). It was a great experience. We’ve got to keep going and keep winning.”
Burnett is in his debut season at Ole Miss after sitting out a year following his transfer from Miami (Fla.). He’s been up and down, to say the least, in his 28 games played, but he still leads Ole Miss in scoring at 16.5 points per game.
Burnett, who started 24 games, is shooting 34 percent from the field, including 36 percent from 3. He’s made a team-best 178 free throws in 198 attempts, good for 89 percent. Rebel assistant coach Bill Armstrong said Burnett, a junior guard, will be a game-time decision. Ole Miss is scheduled to play the last game on Thursday.
“He’s working hard every day in the training room to get his knees ready to play. He’ll obviously be a game-time decision, but he’s making progress, for sure.”
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy was noticeably frustrated by Burnett’s absence against South Carolina. In his postgame comments, he said the expectation was for Burnett to play, but Burnett and the training staff determined it best to sit out.
Burnett has battled nagging injuries throughout the year. He sat for a game and a half due to a high-ankle sprain in January, and he’s held himself out of various team activities a handful of times due to myriad aches and pains.
“He played really well against Missouri. He took a knee to the thigh,” Kennedy said. “Had a little bit of swelling, but didn’t miss any time. Obviously played against Alabama. We came back, and I wasn’t real pleased with the way we had executed. We practiced pretty diligently Thursday. He practiced. He moved around a little slow and said his knee was bothering him. My knee’s bothering me, too. Nobody at this time of the season is healthy. He comes in (Friday), can’t go. Game time decision, they tell me before the game he can’t go. We’ll check him out thoroughly and find out what’s going on. I was planning on him playing tonight.”
With or without Burnett, Armstrong said the Rebels are excited about the opportunity the SEC tournament presents.
“We’re excited to enter the tournament playing well,” he said. “We had a big win Saturday. After a 1-4 start (to SEC play), we finished the year 9-4 in the league. Our team is banged up a little bit, but we’re trying to get healthy, and we’re looking to be healthy on Thursday. The guys are excited about a fresh start and going into the tournament with a lot to play for.”