Hoop Time

The Rebels host North Alabama Friday at 4 p.m. in an exhibition contest.

It's hard to say that Ole Miss' first two seasons under Andy Kennedy have been anything but a success. After all, 21 wins and 24 wins are impressive totals.

Puts him in pretty good company, too. Only Tubby Smith at Kentucky with 63 and at Georgia with 45, along with Eddie Sutton at Kentucky with 50 and Bruce Pearl at Tennessee with 46 have won 45 or more games their first two years at an SEC school.

Among current head coaches in just their third seasons, Kennedy with 66 wins is second behind BYU's Dave Rose with 72 wins for top winning total the past three seasons to begin their careers. That counts Kennedy's 21 wins as interim head coach at Cincinnati.

Things have actually not been bad at all for the UM program. It's just that ole three-letter postseason tournament that keeps getting in the way. NIT, that is.

Had the Rebels been to the four-letter variety, as Kennedy likes to call the NCAA tourney, the program would be even more highly thought of than it is.

As it is right now, the feeling among just about everybody seems to be, "Can you take that next step?"

The coaches and players may or may not ask themselves that. But I already know their answer.

They feel they'll be in the four-letter tourney this time around.

Kennedy said that to him the reason they haven't been is pretty evident. The Rebels haven't won enough on the road. Likely the Auburn game over there last year comes quickly to mind, but there are plenty of others.

The Rebels have just three home losses in the past two seasons. Kentucky beat Ole Miss two years ago in Oxford, and this past season South Carolina and Auburn upset the Rebs.

Had they won those two home contests this past season, they'd likely have been in the field for the NCAA tourney at 9-7 in league play as opposed to 7-9.

But they didn't, and so they build on a strong run to NYC in the NIT last postseason.

Kennedy believes they can also build on big road wins late last year at Georgia to end the regular season and at Virginia Tech, which they won to advance to Madison Square Garden. Sophomore point guard Chris Warren said he feels the same way.

They'll have challenges night in and night out before SEC play even begins. Rarely, and perhaps not ever, has Ole Miss faced a tougher non-conference slate.

Arkansas State, South Alabama, and Central Florida all at home; Utah and Marshall in the Daytona Beach tourney; West Virginia at home in a Fox televised game; at New Orleans and at New Mexico; Louisville in the SEC-Big East game played in Cincinnati; Southern Miss in Biloxi; Morgan State, Alabama State, Florida A&M, and Nicholls State all at home.

I see some gimme wins in there, but not as many as usual. That 14-0 non-SEC mark from a year ago may be hard to match.

But that isn't necessarily the greatest concern. Playing a tougher schedule, getting better, and winning their share will have them ready for SEC play and should have their RPI up there when a trip to Gainesville rolls around on Jan. 10.

The Rebels opening SEC play on the road? Imagine that.

But being better on the road is a goal of Kennedy's this year. Not only that, but winning more on the road.

Getting to 1-0 in league play would be big. Accomplishing it at a place like Florida would be just the boost the program, specifically this year's team, needs come conference time.

But there's a whole lot of hoops action before that. And we'll look into it more this week and in the weeks ahead.

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