Kennedy, players look to NIT home game

Their resume' in the books and their destination determined, the Ole Miss Rebels look forward and not backward as the National Invitation Tournament approaches.

The players and their head coach were upbeat and positive Monday afternoon as they met a room full of media underneath C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum. The Rebels host California-Santa Barbara Wednesday at 7 p.m.

"Obviously we're disappointed we didn't meet our goal," Andy Kennedy said, referring to an NCAA Tournament bid in year No. 2 of his program, after his team was picked dead last in the SEC West in the preseason yet finished solo third. "If we'd have sat here six months ago and told you we were going 21-10, everybody would have said it's not possible. Nobody thought that was going to happen. After we started 15-1, expectations changed and rightfully so. The No. 1 goal when we accepted this challenge (two years ago this month) was to change the mindset, and I believe we have done that. Unfortunately we weren't able to get to the NCAA Tournament this season."

But they have made postseason play, albeit the NIT, for two straight years. Postseason play for Ole Miss basketball hadn't been accomplished at all in the previous four seasons. Not since UCLA knocked the Rebels out of the 2002 NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh had Ole Miss been to postseason play in men's basketball at all.

Until last season when they made the NIT as a No. 3 seed, beat Appalachian State in Oxford and lost to Clemson on the road.

The Rebels, an NIT No. 2 seed this time around, were a win, maybe two, away from an NCAA Tournament bid this season. Any number of scenarios have been played out by coaches, players, and fans – losing to Auburn twice and South Carolina at home during the regular season; one and done in Atlanta to eventual SEC tourney champion Georgia.

But what's done is done. What's in the past is already there. Now it's all about the NIT, preparing and playing as well as they can in the upcoming first-round game, and learning more about the 23-8 Gauchos, a No. 7 NIT seed, in the process.

"We know there were a number of opportunities that we let slip through our fingers and it put us in this position," Kennedy said. "I'm hopeful we'll practice in a competitive nature of wanting to play and wanting to win. These kids are basketball players. This is another opportunity for them to play. I would certainly hate it for our four seniors that the last memory they would have is Dave Bliss (of Georgia) hitting a 12-footer at the buzzer (in the Bulldog's 97-95 overtime win over Ole Miss last Thursday night). Thankfully it's not. If you put things in perspective right now, and I know that's hard for us all, these kids still have a lot to play for."

Although Kennedy and the players did not mention it, certainly another aspect he nor anyone else would want is for there to be a half-filled coliseum for these seniors, for this team, for this school come tipoff time on Wednesday. There have been too many great moments, especially the last two seasons, for that to happen inside the roundhouse the Rebels call home.

Ticket sales Monday were good, not great. They will continue to build through Wednesday, and there is hope of a decent walk-up crowd prior to tipoff.

It's what the players want as they extend their season in 2007-08.

"We're just looking to win games, and we're happy to have them at home," said senior center Dwayne Curtis. "Our standards are high, and there will be some emotion playing on that court again. We get to have two home games if we keep winning, and we want to have that good environment again at home. It will be great to have our fans here to support us."

"We know this will help us for next year," Chris Warren, the freshman point guard, said. "We're looking forward to playing at home."

Kennedy said when you break things down, there are a lot of teams that aren't in the position that Ole Miss is to be able to continue to play more basketball this season.

"There were 34 at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament, and there were 24 at-large bids for the NIT, now that there are automatic tie-in bids in the NIT like there are in the NCAA," he said. "That's 58 out of 340 teams that garnered at-large berths. I believe our kids are excited about that."

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