Holding identical conference records of 6-6, Ole Miss and Auburn enter Wednesday's square off with plenty to play for.
It wasn't long ago that both squads could be called delusional when discussing the possibility of postseason play. But after reeling off impressive winning streaks, each are very much in the hunt for an NIT berth or a long-shot chance for the Big Dance.
Tied for third in the SEC West and not far behind Mississippi State (who stands 7-5) for second, both teams need to continue their recent successes as Tampa draws near.
The Rebels have won five or their last seven, while Auburn has won four of its last five.
It's an important battle, to say the least.
"They're playing good," said Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy of the Tigers' recent successes. "They've got some seniors that have played integral roles. They were playing the same roles my young guys are as freshmen, now they're seniors, and are playing with a great sense of urgency you want your seniors to play with down the stretch."
Having dropped close losses away from Oxford to the likes of LSU and Alabama, grabbing a road win at Auburn would go a long way in building the Rebels' postseason resume.
With a strength of schedule ranked 15th nationally, they're certainly a team to watch down the stretch, and winning their final four regular season games would place them at 19-11 overall and 10-6 against conference opponents (for those of us who struggle with simple math).
Such a standing is certainly appealing to any selection committee, but can only be accomplished by first getting a win on The Plains.
"It's time," Kennedy said. "All we've done is give ourselves a chance for our last four games to have some significance. I said on Saturday, you want to play meaningful basketball in March, and we have a chance to do that. Obviously, it remains to be seen how we handle this opportunity."
This certainly won't be those same Tigers Ole Miss destroyed 78-59 on February 4th. Not by a long shot.
As stated previously, Auburn is one of the hottest teams in the SEC, and is led by a rotation full of juniors and seniors. They hold a 4-2 record at home in league play, but have won their last three over Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State.
DeWayne Reed heads the Tiger attack, leading the team with 13.2 points per game. Korvotney Barber adds 12.9 ppg and 9.3 rebounds per game, while averaging a double-double against SEC foes with 13.0 ppg and 10.7 rpg.
"I'm sure Jeff (Lebo) is going to want them to play a lot differently. It didn't turn out well for them the first time," said Kennedy. "Since we've played them, they went back and had a close win against Tennessee to start a three game homestand. They've won four of their last five.
"They had a similar game as we did in Baton Rouge on Saturday and had an opportunity down the stretch. Now they're going back home with both of us sitting at 6-6. Both of us understand the importance of protecting home court, so it'll be a big challenge."
But it isn't a challenge the Rebels aren't prepared for.
Ole Miss has faced plenty of adversity this season, but has responded with strong resolve. They've gotten increasingly better over the last few weeks, with guys like Terrico White and Murphy Holloway proving their worth in each and every contest.
Another contributing factor has to be in rebounding, where a team who appeared lost against West Virginia months earlier, has now emerged to rank second in the conference in rebounding margin at +4.2.
The improvement doesn't stop there, as the Rebels entered their SEC schedule grabbing an average of only 34.9 boards per game compared to 37.1 for opponents. However, the team is now outrebounding its opposition by almost five per contest (40.0 to 35.8).
Holloway deserves a bulk of credit, considering he's produced three consecutive double-doubles in recent outings.
"He's got a nose for the ball," Kennedy said of Holloway. "He's always around the ball and active. What we try to look at is not so much your first jump, but your second jump or third jump. Those jumps are what separate him. He's able to get hands on balls before people have a chance to react. He uncoils real quickly. Very quick off his feet. "
Murphy and his running mates will need to continue that improvement, as Auburn eyes victory on their home court.
"We played good defense, but we also played at home," said Holloway of the last meeting between the clubs. "We play better at home than on the road, so we'll see when we go there."
Road wins are hard to come by in the SEC, and Ole Miss is in desperate need of one as they head down the final stretch.
While the NIT will be discussed incessantly over the next few weeks, the Rebels do hold an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament if they're able to pull out an impressive finish to the regular season.
After hosting Alabama Saturday, they'll trip to Fayetteville next Wednesday before welcoming Mississippi State to round things out.
Each is winnable, but taking this one against a strong Auburn squad could do wonders for the Rebels' building momentum.
Suffice to say, Ole Miss can ill afford any slip-up in such a crucial contest.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. and can be heard on the Ole Miss Radio Network.
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