As winners of five of their last eight games and sitting fourth in the tightly-contested SEC West, Ole Miss remains in contention for a potential postseason appearance.
Holding an overall record of 16-12 and 6-7 mark in conference play, a berth in the NIT is certainly attainable. The Rebels claim the nation's No. 21 strength of schedule, with three games remaining against the SEC West's fifth, sixth and second teams currently.
But after a 77-64 disappointment on the Plains Wednesday, they face an important test against Alabama if their hopes for March Madness are to remain within the realm of possibility.
"I just want us to keep improving. If we keep improving the results will take care of themselves," said Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy. "(Against Auburn), it was our lack of execution. We had 23 turnovers, which is a season-high and the most we've had since we've been here in our three year tenure. And the ability to make the same shots late was difficult. We missed the same shots we were making early, with the same guys shooting. So we failed ourselves in execution."
Entering Saturday, the Crimson Tide have improved its record to 15-12 overall and 5-8 in league contests with two consecutive wins over Mississippi State and Arkansas.
Those victories snapped a four-game losing streak for the squad, who are led be interim head coach Phillip Pearson. Reigning SEC Player of the Week Alonzo Gee paces the team in scoring, averaging 15.1 per contest.
"Phillip was with Mark forever," said Kennedy of former Tide head coach Mark Gottfried, who was relieved of his duties earlier in the SEC season. "They've tweaked a few different things as it relates to their lineup. He's playing a few more players, and they're playing faster. Because of Alonzo Gee, they won two big games last week at home, and he might be playing the best basketball of his career. He's been outstanding. With his size and athleticism, coupled with his ability to make perimeter shots, he's a tough out."
The Rebels will surely be looking for a bit of payback this time around, as Alabama defeated Ole Miss 76-73 in Tuscaloosa earlier this season.
Freshmen Terrico White and Murphy Holloway each had scoring opportunities in the game's final moments to give the Rebels an advantage, but were unsuccessful in their attempts.
Senior David Huertas had a game-high 26 points in an outing many have claimed as "the one that got away."
"Honestly, I try to move on," Kennedy said of the close loss. "I don't have the luxury of living in the woulda, coulda, shoulda world. We can all point and counterpoint ourselves to death. It was an opportunity for us, and in reviewing the tape, we had a chance. We match up pretty well with them. They're a different team now, as are we."
Sophomore Zach Graham also refuses to look back to the teams' first meeting.
"We're just trying not to think about the past," he explained. "We know if we play like we can, we'll be able to beat Alabama. We're just trying to stay focused and prepare for them."
One area of emphasis will obviously be putting together a full game.
In previous outings against Tennessee and Georgia, the Rebels had become known as a second half team. The squad dominated the first five minutes following halftime, with each run triggering Ole Miss wins.
In both contests combined, the Rebs outscored their opposition 29-3 in the half's opening stages.
That changed against Auburn, however, despite a Rebel lead of 40-36 at the break. The Tigers used an 11-0 run in the opening minutes of the second to bury Ole Miss, who converted only one shot attempt in over 11 minutes
"We're a better team now, because I think we know you have to put two halves together," sophomore Malcolm White said. "We are young, but we are still learning what it takes to win in the SEC."
Now the Rebs turn their attention to Alabama, with their sole focus on improving as the regular season draws to a close.
"There's plenty of time to figure out what the next step is," Kennedy said. "I want these guys to try the best they can to live in the moment. It's a little different. Usually as a coach, you have a rallying cry for the seniors. Outside of a couple of our walk-ons, these guys will be back.
"I want to make sure they live in the moment and stay on the focus we started a couple of months ago. Let's try to continue to improve. If we do, these last few games can still have some significance."
Saturday's game will be the 164th meeting between Ole Miss and Alabama. The Crimson Tide holds a 114-49 lead in the series, which began in 1921.
The teams have split their season series in nine of the last 10 years, including last season when the home team won each time.
Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. and will be broadcast on Raycom Sports.
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