Through 22 games, Ole Miss sits 16-6 overall and 4-4 in conference play. The year has seen its share of highs and lows, from a resume-building win over Kansas State to a disappointing home loss to Mississippi State to open a 16-game SEC slate.
It's hard to say where the Rebels currently stand in the NCAA Tournament picture. Some will cite the positives, including a second-place standing in the SEC West as reason for continued interest. Others, meanwhile, look to missed opportunities, with losses at Tennessee and at home vs. Arkansas as obvious sticking points going forward.
"It's really hard for me to believe, because you get so tunnel vision, that we've already played 22 games," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said Thursday. "It's February. This marathon that we've run, we're now on the bell lap. It's not a sprint yet, but you better pick up the pace. Every game has a lot of magnitude. We're trying to get our guys to understand that, because it's important."
Eight games remain in the regular season.
To reach the Big Dance, Ole Miss, a team still suffering from various question marks, will surely need to win more games than it loses from here on out. Because, as Kennedy and company are often reminded, what looms overhead is an NCAA Tournament drought stretching seven seasons.
"A lot of times you talk about it, and people think it's coach speak, but all the time I've been here it's been a one weekend difference," Kennedy said. "A game here or a game there is going to be the difference in finishing first and finishing fourth (in the SEC). Kentucky has obviously gotten some separation on the other side, but not so much, because them and Vandy are still battling there. Both sides will end up being hotly contested going into that last weekend. It's the way it's always been since I've been here, and I don't anticipate it being any different."
Sophomore Terrico White, the Rebels' second-leading scorer with 15 points per game, is being challenged to take over, according to Kennedy.
The dynamic guard took a step in that direction in an 85-75 loss to Kentucky on Super Tuesday, as he finished with 19 points and seven rebounds. He took 13 shots in the loss and made seven.
"I still think the strength of our team is in our backcourt and experience in our backcourt. For this team to be where it needs to be six weeks from now, we have to have guys in our backcourt who are getting all-league votes," said Kennedy. "Those are the guys who got the preseason all-league votes. Well, they need to get the postseason all-league votes for our team to be successful. That's just who we are. We're going to have to have that down the stretch."
White knows the Rebels are living dangerously this season. Ole Miss has dropped two of three SEC home games so far, and are in the midst of a two-game losing skid.
"We feel the first game against Mississippi State, we should've won that," he said. "Our second home game, we lost to Arkansas. We didn't play well start to finish in that game."
It's hard to question the potential of Kennedy's most athletic team since he's been here. The fourth-year head coach has built a roster comprised of premier shooters.
With an average of 80.6 points per game, Ole Miss ranks second in the SEC and 17th in the nation in scoring offense. Junior guard Chris Warren ranks sixth in the conference in scoring with 16 points per game, and White is 10th.
The Rebels are nationally ranked for the ninth straight week, coming in at No. 25 according to the Associated Press.
"We've shown we're better than what most people think," White said. "But we've still got something to prove."
Today, Ole Miss hosts Alabama at 5 p.m. The game will be broadcast through FSN South, and can also be heard via the Ole Miss Radio Network.
It will be the 165th meeting between the two schools. The Crimson Tide holds a 115-49 lead in the series, which began in 1921.
Under first-year head coach Anthony Grant, Alabama, 13-9 overall and 3-5 in SEC play, features one of the league's best defenses. The Tide are second in scoring defense in all games, as they surrender only 62.4 points per game. League foes post a 39.3 field goal percentage and 26.3 3-point percentage against the Tide, both of which are league lows.
"(Grant) wants to employ 94-feet pressure," Kennedy said. "I think he's trying to do that as well, based on his personnel. We'll see some full-court pressure. Offensively, they don't shoot as many balls as we do. They're not quite as aggressive. But defensively, first and foremost, we're going to have to handle their pressure. And their best player is an inside guy, so they'll go inside-out."
Alabama holds a narrow 38-37 lead in games played in Oxford, but the Rebels have won nine of the last 12 meetings.
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