NCAA Tournament teams normally protect home court.
NCAA Tournament teams usually don't allow a resume-building game against a nationally-ranked opponent to slip through its fingers.
NCAA Tournament teams aren't fielding questions about their identity 25 games into a season.
That's why Ole Miss (17-8, 5-6 SEC) isn't an NCAA Tournament team. At least, not where the Rebels currently stand. Instead, and without the luxury of time, their backs are against the wall with five games left in the regular season.
Thursday's 82-78 missed opportunity to No. 17 Vanderbilt was as close to a bubble burster as you could get.
Ole Miss needed another marquee win. Vanderbilt was a prime opportunity. Maybe the last one, actually. Sure, those non-league wins over Kansas State and UTEP were impressive, but the conference slate has been up-and-down, to put it mildly.
Left on the docket is, among others, matchups with Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas. Certainly not a very impressive list, even with wins, in the selection committee's eyes.
"I hope they're an NCAA Tournament team," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings, his team moving to 20-5, 9-2 on the season, said of the Rebels. "I certainly think they can be."
But Ole Miss hasn't proven it.
This one meant momentum. An appearance in The Big Dance, not sniffed by Ole Miss in eight years, could be realistically had. Now, barring the unforeseen, those hopes seem incredibly optimistic.
"Trust me; I understand the importance of this game," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said of the loss to Vanderbilt. "I understand the missed opportunity. But as the coach, my job is to push forward. And that's what we're going to do."
Unless Ole Miss wins out, perhaps wins four of its last five, or makes a run through the SEC Tournament, a first-round home game in the NIT appears the likely postseason destination. Such an appearance would be the third in four years under Kennedy.
"We know we've got six games left (counting at least one in the SEC Tournament)," Kennedy said. "We've gotta get over the hump. We've gotta have a belief that we're going to close games."
But how did this team, one that just three weeks ago was 4-2 in SEC play, get to this point? Its postseason fate soon to be decided by uncontrollable forces?
The downward spiral began when freshman forward Reginald Buckner went crashing to the floor in a win over Auburn. The Rebels went 1-3 in his four-game absence, including a home loss to Arkansas. And as the league losses piled up, the team's RPI fell faster than Alice down the rabbit hole.
After Thursday, Ole Miss has dropped five of six, and has actually won more conference road games (three) than home games (two).
And it's almost late February.
The Rebels no longer control their own destiny. In fact, they need losses from Arkansas and Mississippi State just to stay above water. Even then, they'll need, as simple as it sounds, to keep winning. The SEC West isn't setting the world on fire this season.
In a quick turnaround, Florida (18-8, 7-4) rolls into Oxford Saturday at 11 a.m. Similar to Ole Miss, the Gators are fighting desperately to remain in the NCAA discussion. From this point forward, each and every game carries the most significant of weight, as Murphy Holloway so aptly states.
"I'm tired of hearing, ‘Go get the next game,'" Holloway, who totaled 12 points and 10 rebounds in the loss, said. "In a minute, it's going to run out."
Time still remains to avoid a disappointing season with such high expectations, but the proverbial clock is ticking.
"I don't know about the RPI and all that. I just play. But I want to win out," Holloway added. "I think that might be the best chance (for the NCAA Tournament). Just win out and everything will take care of itself."
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