The Ole Miss Rebels host California-Santa Barbara at 7 p.m. in the NIT's first round. The Gauchos, who have traveled from the West Coast, are bound to be excited about the game. None of their current players have participated in the postseason in college basketball. Not so for the Rebels. Therefore, question one.
Will the Rebels' hearts be in it since it's the three-letter tournament again and not the four-letter one?
My guess is they will. Andy Kennedy says he believes so, too. They're 18-22 year olds. The four seniors will want to play as long as possible.
Will the fans' hearts be in it? Better yet, will very many show up?
I'm not as confident about that one. I'm hoping for 6,000.
Why is that? Lots of reasons. I don't ever remember an NIT game selling out at Ole Miss except maybe the first one. And it was historic.
Ole Miss beat Grambling 78-76 on a last-second jumper by Carlos Clark in 1980. The game was in Oxford and was significant on several levels. The next game Ole Miss lost at Minnesota.
NIT games just don't sell out, not here, not most places. One thing that will help is the fact that the students are back in town. Last year it was spring break when the Rebels hosted Appalachian State.
Kennedy made some excellent points Monday. He said again it had been a growing and educational season for his team and for him and his program.
He also said that back in the fall few thought the Rebels could be 21-10 this season. That mark got them the NIT bid as opposed to a couple of more wins that would have gotten them into the NCAA. His analogy to football, that fans would be excited this fall if the Rebels get to Shreveport, is on the mark. With one slight exception. The basketball Rebs were in the Shreveport equivalent of hoops last year. Thus a bit less excitement, it appears. Rebel fans have been down that road in football with back to back Shreveport trips in 1998-99 and again in 2002.
It's the unfortunate nature of the beast at times. A 13-0 start and a national ranking that didn't propel the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament, and some fans said wait ‘til next year.
Which begs another question Kennedy was asked Monday. How much will you play the younger guys in this tournament to get them ready for the future?
"A lot of that depends on how our guys respond," he said. "I'm hopeful our upperclassmen will be excited about the opportunity. If they respond, I'm going to play the guys that can get the job done for us. I'm terribly disappointed for those four seniors not having the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. Having the chance to possibly go to New York City and play for an NIT championship would be something that would be very, very memorable to them and that's what we're hoping for. It is another opportunity, most especially for these younger kids, to get mentally tougher and to get ourselves up off the mat and see if we can respond. And we haven't done a very good job of that all season, quite frankly."
So what type of team is UCSB? Kennedy tells us a little bit of what to expect.
"One of the reasons we're in the three-letter tournament as opposed to the four-letter one is our inability to guard frontcourt people on the perimeter," he said. "It hurt us when we lost to Auburn. It hurt us when we lost to South Carolina. Now we're facing a similar team. They score more than eight 3-pointers a game and shoot 41 percent as a team from the perimeter. All five of their guys can extend you to the 3-point line, so it's going to put our post guys in the uncomfortable position of having to guard on the perimeter.
"They're a senior-laden upper-class team who has experience winning on the road. They've won 10 games away from home. They're very skilled. We have to play the game at our pace and to the best of our ability in order to give us a chance to advance."
What's been the Rebels' biggest shortcoming this season? Defensive lapses? Youthful mistakes? Inconsistency from the wings?
"The biggest breakdown that we've had is our inability to make free throws," Kennedy said. "We've had 10 losses and in those 10 losses we've shot collectively 63 percent from the free throw line and our opponent has shot 71 percent. Our opponent has made more free throws in those 10 losses than we have attempted. Our opponents scored 63 more points from the free throw line than we did in those 10 losses. If we could have made free throws, we would have had three or four more wins. And as fundamental as that is, and it's our own fault, our inability to take advantage of those is the reason we're sitting here today discussing the NIT and not the NCAA.
"I do think we have had issues defensively. But our field goal percentage defense honestly is not as far off as we thought it would be. We're seventh in the SEC in field goal percentage defense. We do allow a lot of points, but that's because we score a lot of points. We're at 80 points per game now. When we took the job, they (Rebels) were averaging 65 points a game. Our field goal percentage defense has improved. Our rebounding margin is No. 1 in the SEC for the first time in the last 20 years at Ole Miss.
"Our inability to make free throws at the end of the day is the reason we're in this position."
The position they are in is the NIT again. Answers to the above questions and more could be revealed, at least in part, against UCSB.
Ultimately a successful season continues tonight in round one.
"There've been five teams in the history of this program that have won 21 or more games," Kennedy said. "These seniors have been a part of two of those. They want the opportunity to build on that and now they have that opportunity."
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