The Rebels were dejected, sure, especially senior front-court stalwart Sebastian Saiz, who, upon season’s end, will have played in just one NCAA Tournament in his four-year Ole Miss career. The 2011-12 Ole Miss basketball team, for example, never overcame the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels went on to lose at home to Illinois State in the first round of the NIT that year.
But each team is different, and Kennedy has been pleased with how Ole Miss, six years later, has taken to the opportunity to play in the postseason, regardless of destination. The Rebels are a No. 5 seed in the NIT. They won their first-round game at No. 4 seed Monmouth, 91-83.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to advance this thing to the Final Four in the NIT in Madison Square Garden on two difference occasions,” Kennedy said. “If you can continue to win, the momentum continues to build. And I know initially the disappointment of, ‘Oh, it’s just the NIT,’ that goes away. It becomes a thing and it becomes a goal to try to get to Madison Square Garden. Just based on the way the bracket has unfolded, for us, this is our last true road trip because of the way the seeding fell out with Georgia losing. Now if we win, we’ll come home and host for an opportunity to have a special ending, especially for those two seniors.”
Ole Miss is 14-11 all-time in the NIT. The Rebels reached the NIT Final Four in both 2008 and 2010.
The path back to New York won’t be easy. Up next is a road trip to No. 1 seed Syracuse Saturday at 10 a.m. on ESPN. But if the Rebels win, they’ll host either Georgia Tech or Belmont at The Pavilion next week.
Kennedy simply hopes the Rebels continue to show the same fight they have so far. Because meaningful March games — whether in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT — are invaluable. Of Ole Miss’ five starters Tuesday night at Monmouth, four will return next season, and 7-foot Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak is standing in waiting to replace Saiz.
“I think especially for a guy like (Ole Miss point guard) Breein (Tyree), we’re going back up north for him, every game he get is going to certainly help him moving forward,” Kennedy said. “Here’s a guy who if you look at his minutes throughout the course of the year, he really developed into a guy now that could potentially play 30 minutes every night. He was a guy in November who we were just trying to find pockets for him to play and get experience and get some confidence back physically. So it’s invaluable to him.
“You’ve got a guy like Deandre Burnett who I look at like a veteran, but he’s never been in this situation before, nor has he played a lot of basketball in the last three years just based on his situation with his injury at Miami and his transfer and sitting out. I’ve got a junior college transfer in Justas (Furmanavicius) who, obviously, is going through this for the first time. You’ve got Terence Davis who is inarguably the most improved player in the SEC, and one of the most improved in the country. All of these are great opportunities for these kids to continue to grow and to learn.”
Saturday will be the first-ever meeting between the Rebels and the Orange. Ole Miss is 0-1 against ACC schools this season, falling earlier this year at Virginia Tech. They Rebels are 2-3 all time versus the ACC in the NIT, including a 2-2 mark on the road. Kennedy is 1-2 all time against Syracuse in his career, knocking off the Orange in Syracuse in his lone season as interim head coach at Cincinnati in 2005-06.
Syracuse easily dispatched of No. 8 seed UNC-Greensboro, 90-77, Wednesday. Andrew White III led the Orange with 33 points. Four players scored double-digit points, including 20 from Tyus Battle, a former high school teammate of Tyree.
“They’re long and athletic,” Kennedy said. “They score the ball pretty easily. We’re going to have to go up there and make shots. And, really, that’s been our M.O. When we make shots, we’re a pretty good team. We’re going to have to certainly make them Saturday.
“I’m very familiar with Syracuse because they’re on so much. It’s so much different than Monmouth. Just based on technology today you can pull up game tape on almost anybody in the country via the different sites on your computer. It’s so much different than when I started in this business. If we were playing Monmouth before, we would have gone in dead blind ‘cause we wouldn’t have had enough time to get film exchanged to see what we were dealing with. Back in the day, you would have never seen Monmouth on TV. Now we’re able to get some film in. We were able to get our guys educated as best we could amidst the travel into the storm, which is well-documented.
“But Syracuse is different. It seems like they’re on every game. It seems like everybody is familiar with the legend of Jim Boeheim. Our guys will be excited about the Carrier Dome. I do think it’s still snowing up there. I saw their crowd (against UNC-Greensboro) was very, very sparse. I think they’re on spring break and still dealing with this storm. I’m sure they’re veterans at dealing with heavy snow. I would anticipate a much better crowd, and I know our guys will be excited about having the opportunity to play in the Carrier Dome, one of the most iconic places to play in all of college basketball. They’ve got good players. I’m familiar with Andrew White. He’s a two-time transfer. I think he’s a former McDonald’s All-American. He’s a guy that’s a pro on the wing. They’ve got size and athleticism up front. A twist that you guys might not know is Tyus Battle, who is their third-leading scorer, he and Breein were high school teammates. Same high school, so, again, we go back to this connection with Breein Tyree. We’re going to have to make shots. That zone is big and it’s long, and they’re athletic. They’re the best in the country at it. Ultimately we’re going to have to step in and make some shots in order to have a chance to survive.”