SEC tip time 2006-07 is here

Andy Kennedy will drop a quick and subtle hint or two or a comment or two along the way. You have to be listening close or you'll miss it, because he moves right on to his next thought.

Before the season it was mentioned to him that a lot of Ole Miss fans don't think basketball begins until SEC play. That way they don't have to concentrate on hoops until football's over. Of course, the truth is it's that way at most SEC schools.

Andy basically said he couldn't worry about things like that. He said they'd just play ball and not be concerned too much about the periphery aspects, although he knows how important fans are to the program.

Thursday I mentioned to him that he'd often said this preseason how key it's been to his team to play in environments like UConn or Memphis. And now they'll get to play in one of those right here at home with a lot of their own fans in the stands.

"That's what they tell me. That's what they tell me," Kennedy said, then repeated, concerning the fact that there'll be more fans at this one than at any two home games combined so far. "They tell me there will be some people in here and they'll be wearing red. I'm anticipating a good crowd, and I know people will be ready to support the Rebels. I hope we can feed off of that and turn it into a true homecourt advantage and use it to help us.

"It's very difficult to win on the road - for Ole Miss, for Kentucky, for every team. For us to be successful, we have to protect home court."

The Rebels, 11-3, begin their first SEC season under Kennedy at 7:30 Saturday night. Kennedy may or may not know that the Rebels rarely get a home game to start the SEC season. The conference usually sends Ole Miss on the road.

In eight years under Rod Barnes, Ole Miss began its SEC season at home just once. That doesn't seem fair, does it?

So this year the league allows Ole Miss to play at home first. But it doesn't send in Auburn. It sends in Kentucky.

But oh the possibilities if the Rebels win. National attention. Kennedy's name gets mentioned all across the country, along with Ole Miss. Media and hoops fans remember Kennedy from last year's run at Cincinnati.

But let's leave all that out there for a moment. The Rebels can't worry about what a win would do for them or the coaches or the program other than this: It would make them 1-0 as they begin the difficult SEC season.

Up next will be a trip to Mississippi State on Wednesday. Then Arkansas comes to town, followed by road trips to Final Four participant from last season LSU and national champ from last year Florida. Whew. It is tough in this league.

Kentucky, 11-3, comes in having won seven games in a row. The Wildcats are led by 6-11 junior center Randolph Morris, the SEC Player of the Week this past week after posting his fourth double-double of the season.

Ramel Bradley, the 6-2 junior guard, scores at a 13.3 points per game clip, while 6-5 junior Joe Crawford is the only other Wildcat in double digit scoring at 12.4.

As usual, Kentucky will bring to Oxford an assortment of talented high school All-Americans, along with some other role players who will again help them get to the NCAA Tournament.

Sometimes we hear how Ole Miss rarely has a Mississippian on its men's hoops roster. This year the Wildcats have only one player from the hoops-rich state of Kentucky, and that's 7-2 sophomore center Jared Carter from Scott County High in Georgetown.

Also arriving will be Tubby Smith, father of Rebel junior guard Brian Smith. Tubby won a national title in his first season back in 1997-98 but has been searching for a second one in the years since. UK fans are more than a bit restless.

The success has been there. The NCAA Tournaments have been there. The national titles have not. Not since year one of the Smith regime.

That year the Wildcats raced to the finish line, winning their last 13 games after a Valentine's Day loss at Rupp Arena to Ole Miss. That was nine seasons ago.

Ten years ago, on Jan. 11, 1997 to be exact, Ole Miss beat Kentucky 73-69 in Oxford. It was Rick Pitino's last season with the Wildcats.

It was also the biggest win to date for a Rob Evans program on its way to back to back SEC West titles and NCAA appearances.

It had taken Evans five seasons to get things going for Ole Miss basketball. He had a handful of key victories in the first four years. But he had brought in significant back to back recruiting classes in 1994 and 1995 which had, among them, SEC Player of the Year in 1997-98 Ansu Sesay along with Anthony Boone, Jason Smith, Keith Carter, and Michael White. Those players and their teammates set a new standard for Ole Miss basketball, which the program still aspires to today.

This year's Rebels have yet to put together a complete game. They've come close a time or two and they've had some good halves. But they can't continue winning half No. 1 like at St. Louis last weekend and then not finish the deal in half No. 2. Or vice versa.

That's only part of the battle they've faced so far this season in resurrecting the program. The talent level isn't there yet to win game in and game out. That's a given. And the mindset and mentality need some positive reinforcement for this team to continue to believe.

It's one of the reasons why last Saturday's dramatic loss hurt. Because the Rebels of this season can ill afford many blows to their mental outlook and approach.

The players had put it behind them by early week. Kennedy admitted he hadn't.

"It was a chance to win on the road, and winning road games is a difficult thing," he said this week.

But now they are back at home, a place that's so far been kind with eight wins in eight games but with more empty seats than filled ones.

So what if Kennedy and company don't beat Kentucky Saturday in their first try as a program at Ole Miss? Not many across the country expect it anyway.

But what if they do? Kennedy's hoping quite a few of you will be here to see it.

He's said from day one back in March he hopes that when fans take their seats in the coliseum that it will have been worth their time and effort and that he wants them to feel ownership in the program that they support.

SEC tip time 2006-07 is here.

OM Spirit Top Stories