Bubble Battle

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy considers himself a big picture guy.

It's difficult for the fourth-year head coach to put away losses, especially of the league variety, considering the magnitude each carries down the final stretch toward the NCAA Tournament.

But lately, Kennedy has had to be somewhat short-sighted. Ole Miss, thanks to a two-game win streak, is 19-9 overall and 7-7 in Southeastern Conference play. The Rebels are in a win-or-else scenario and still need a little help along the way for an eight-season stint without March Madness to mercifully come to an end.

"We know we have to win games," Kennedy said Wednesday. "I realize with 19 wins, it's not enough. We've got to win games and we've got an opportunity to do so."

Before the selection committee makes its picks in 10 days for the 65-team field, Ole Miss has plenty of work to do. The Rebels, by the very definition, are a bubble team, with an RPI of 56 and few quality wins.

Ole Miss, who first meets LSU today at 8 p.m. before tripping to Arkansas Saturday, has no room for error. Mississippi State did the Rebels a favor by falling at Auburn 89-80 Wednesday night. Now Ole Miss is in better shape if it takes care of business down the final stretch.

"You go from one side of the proverbial bubble to the other side having not even played," Kennedy said when asked if there's any set number to get an NCAA Tournament bid. "It's simply because the other teams in that mix are also playing. Some are playing each other. There really is no number."

The Rebels are fighting for the No. 2 seed in the SEC West, which would give them a bye in the first round of the SEC Tournament next week. They are also one win shy of reaching 20 for the third time in four seasons.

Mississippi State, which ranks No. 1 in the West and claims an RPI of 56, holds meaningful losses to Richmond, Rider and Western Kentucky. Ole Miss has suffered its worst losses in-conference, including two to those same Bulldogs and another at home to current West No. 2 Arkansas.

Still with me? Good. We're working fast here, people.

If the Rebels win out in the regular season, they could be, potentially, matched with Tennessee in Nashville, Tenn. following the bye. The Volunteers have locked up the No. 3 seed from the East, and offer an opportunity for a quality win if they're able to advance.

Call it a play-in game, if you will.

"I want to win them all," sophomore forward Murphy Holloway said of his team's chances for the Big Dance. "I want to win out. Of course, everybody wants to win the SEC Tournament, but let's at least win out and try to get us one or two games in the tournament. I think that would do us some good."

Basically, there are many moving parts. What Ole Miss can control over its last three games (at least for now) is winning games.

"I'm kind of a big-picture thinker, but every team has a different identity. I've found this team is more successful when we stay in the moment. So that's what we're doing. We're staying in the moment," Kennedy said.

Ole Miss' NCAA Tournament resumé is founded on two quality non-league wins.

The Rebels beat top-10 ranked Kansas State in Puerto Rico and also top-25 ranked UTEP in Southaven. The win over the Wildcats, ranked No. 5 RPI, is the best non-league victory by an SEC team away from its home court this season.

Joe Lunardi of ESPN has Ole Miss in his "First four out" of the tournament. Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com, meanwhile, has the Rebels as a No. 11 seed in his latest tournament projection.

Ole Miss is the epitome of a bubble team. Wins are all that matter the rest of the way.

LSU enters the final week at 10-18 overall and 1-13 in league play. A 65-54 home win over Arkansas in late February snapped the Tigers' 12-game conference losing streak. Tasmin Mitchell leads the team with 17.1 points per game.

The game tonight will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

"They're playing very competitive," Kennedy said of LSU. "The pieces haven't changed. It's still about Tasmin Mitchell and Bo Spencer. Their other guys, just out of sheer necessity, are getting more experience because they're playing more. They got a good win against Arkansas and came very close against Mississippi State. They've been very competitive in all their games.

"The situation that we're in, I assure you, we have no luxury at looking to the next game or even big picture. We're in the final stretch and have to make sure we're focused and ready to go at full strength."

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