Despite a 19-12 (10-8 SEC) record, the Rebels aren’t even in the bubble conversation as they enter play as the No. 6 seed in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday night against either Auburn or Missouri. They’re currently a No. 3 seed in the NIT, and they’ll likely need a championship run to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Ole Miss last won the SEC tournament in 2013. The Rebels have an overall record of 30-52 in 54 SEC tournament appearances, and they’ve won six of their last 10 games dating back to 2012.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy, who is 8-9 in the SEC tournament, said. “We’re coming off arguably our best win of the season in beating a good, quality South Carolina team. I think our guys are in a pretty good mindset approaching this week and this opportunity.”
The overriding issue for the Rebels is their lack of signature, marquee wins. By the numbers, only one game — the 75-70 win over South Carolina on Saturday — qualifies as such.
“I didn’t think we had to win it (in 2013); I thought we had to get to the finals, and I really think it’s the same case this year,” Kennedy said. “When you start looking at numbers, our biggest void is the lack of quality wins, the Top 50 wins. What this tournament is going to do is provide those opportunities if you can get through Thursday night. We’ve seen how terribly inconsistent we’ve been in a lot of different areas. I’m not thinking about anything but trying to win Thursday to get to Friday.”
The winner of the SEC tournament automatically qualifies for the NCAA Tournament. But again, Ole Miss isn’t looking ahead. The Rebels are only guaranteed one game, and they plan to take advantage of it.
“That’s always the goal,” sophomore guard Terence Davis said of getting to Sunday. “If we win it, we know we’re in, so that’s the only thing we think of.”
“Our mindset is just every game we’ve got to go 1-0,” freshman guard Breein Tyree said. “We’re not looking ahead to the next game or the game after that. We’re just focusing on Missouri and Auburn. We’re going to try to get that win and survive and move on.”
The Rebels are No. 68 in the latest RPI rankings released by the NCAA. Auburn comes in at No. 94, while Missouri is No. 262. They're 8-12 against the RPI Top 150, with wins over South Carolina (No. 31), Vanderbilt (No. 45), Tennessee (No. 76), Auburn (No. 94), Memphis (No. 110) and MSU (No. 147).
All 12 of their losses came to teams inside the RPI Top 100. Their strength of schedule is 46.
“Go on a run, see what we can do and get to championship Sunday,” junior guard Deandre Burnett said. “That’s how we’re looking at it. We feel like we’re in the NIT, but we don’t want to go to the NIT. We want to make a run and get to the NCAA Tournament. The game plan is to get to Sunday. Why not?”
“Last year we won 20 games and didn’t go anywhere,” Kennedy said. “Our numbers are better from an RPI standpoint, but there’s no guarantees. If we don’t win Thursday it may be over. That’s what’s so funny. It’s a snapshot of today in college basketball. If we could go on a three-day run, we might get in the four-letter tournament. If we lose in the first round we might not go to any tournament. There’s a lot of teams playing right now in that same predicament.”
Will he or won't he?
Kennedy reaffirmed Burnett’s game-time-decision status Wednesday afternoon. Burnett was a non-participant against South Carolina after suffering a minor knee injury in a win over Missouri Feb. 25.
“He’s a game-time decision. He practiced today,” Kennedy said. “We did some stuff to try to alleviate some pain. This is an issue that’s going to have to be dealt with in the offseason. But I would be surprised if he wasn’t ready to roll tomorrow.”
Burnett has had an up-and-down debut season for the Rebels. While he leads Ole Miss in scoring at 16.5 points per game, he’s also committed a team-high 84 turnovers in 28 games played. He’s shooting just 34 percent from the field, including 36 percent from 3, but his 178 free throws made in 198 attempts are best on the team.
“Feeling a lot better,” Burnett said. “A lot of treatment, icing, things like that. Things are feeling better.”
Burnett said it’s his right knee that is the issue, though his left knee is ailing him, too. Burnett took a shot to his left knee against Missouri. He played the following game at Alabama, however.
Thursday night could simply be a case of pain tolerance.
“Got back going, tried to get back going before the (South Carolina) game, but couldn’t really move that much,” he said. “Flared up on me again. I thought it was best just to not go. I’ve gotten better. (The Ole Miss training staff) has been doing a good job with me, getting me in the training room, doing rehab, icing it and things like that.”
Third time the charm?
Regardless of the team Ole Miss draws in the second round, the Rebels will be tasked with beating their opponent for the third time in as many opportunities this season.
“Obviously you’re going to do whatever you can to create some motivation. But when you get to tournament time, if you’re trying to motivate your team, you’ve got a bad team. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” Kennedy said.
“I can guarantee you neither of these teams are thinking about us. They’re thinking about their first-round game, and then their attention will turn to the Rebels once they get done with round one. I honestly think it’s an advantage. Long term, having to win five games in five days is pretty tough to do. But I do think it’s an advantage whoever comes out of the first game vs. us tomorrow because they’ve had success on the court, they’ve seen the ball go in and they’ve won. I think that’s helped them.”
Ole Miss has won each of its last 10 meetings with Auburn, and 13 of its last 15. The Rebels swept the season series, including a 23-point, come-from-behind victory on Feb. 11, which tied for the greatest comeback in school history. Ole Miss is 2-1 all time against Auburn in the SEC tournament.
Ole Miss and Missouri have met all of nine times in history, with all nine games coming since the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012-13. The Rebels lead the all-time series 8-1 and have won seven straight.
Missouri was among the teams Ole Miss took down en route to its SEC tournament title in 2013.
“Even beating a team two times this season is an accomplishment,” Tyree said. “Beating a team three times is going to be tough, but we’re going to go out with the same mindset and try to come out with a win.”