The Rebels, in the midst of a 1-5 losing skid at the worst time, seemed destined for the NIT. An 80-73 home loss to Arkansas on the final day of January sparked the spiral. The absence of Reginald Buckner, sidelined with an ankle injury, caused a ripple effect.
All head coach Andy Kennedy could do was try and stop the bleeding.
In mid-February, Ole Miss opened an all-important, three-game homestand. There was no room for error. To suffer a single loss meant crippling a shot at the NCAA Tournament – perhaps devastating.
What followed, however, were disappointing performances against Vanderbilt and Florida. Both were quality wins. Ole Miss got neither.
Say goodbye to March Madness. Again. The eighth time in as many seasons.
But three games later, and with a little help along the way, here they are. The Rebels have won three straight and sit 20-9 overall and 8-7 in Southeastern Conference play. There's meaningful basketball to be played yet.
And in the regular season finale, no less.
"As long as there's games, there's hope," Kennedy said postgame of the team's 72-59 win over LSU Thursday. "As games start dwindling down, you have less opportunity. We understand completely what's on the line. We understand that Saturday's a big game."
As Kennedy says, Ole Miss (somehow still) controls its own destiny. Ole Miss and Arkansas (14-16, 7-8 SEC) meet again, this time in Fayetteville, today at 3 p.m.
The Rebels can clinch the Western Division No. 2 seed in next week's SEC Tournament with a win. A first-round bye comes with it, too. Even better, if Mississippi State loses to Tennessee, Ole Miss would tie for the SEC West crown.
MSU owns the head-to-head tie-breaker, though, and has clinched the West's No. 1 seed.
"It sets yourself up for what you can do in Nashville," Kennedy said of the significance of today's game. "We realize opportunities are becoming more and more scarce. We have to win when we get the opportunity."
If Ole Miss were to grab the coveted No. 2 seed, it would face the first-round winner of Tennessee and LSU, who play Thursday. A matchup with the Volunteers (assuming they win, of course) is another chance at a quality win. Ole Miss claims a current RPI of 56, while Tennessee has an RPI of 15.
The Rebels are only 2-5 against top-50 RPI teams and 7-8 against teams in the current RPI 120. Their worst loss came to these same Razorbacks, the first game without Buckner, who sit at No. 136 overall.
"Any game can take you out or put you in," junior guard Zach Graham said. "We're trying to take it game by game and make sure we win."
After opening their league schedule with six wins in their first nine outings, the Razorbacks enter the contest one game behind Ole Miss in the West, and have lost five of their last six. Despite missing the team's first 14 games, Courtney Fortson leads Arkansas in scoring with 18.7 points per game.
"Talented, scary," Kennedy said when describing Arkansas. "Courtney Fortson will give you nightmares. In the open floor, he's very difficult to guard. When they're on their game, they're a good basketball team. We have a lot of respect for their abilities. And we know in Bud Walton on Senior Night, there'll be a few people against us."
Ole Miss has a 5-4 record in true road games this season, including a 4-3 mark in conference road play. It's the third best record behind overall leaders Kentucky and Vanderbilt. The Rebels have won four SEC road games (Georgia, LSU, Auburn and Alabama) for the first time since claiming four in 2001.
Only twice in school history has Ole Miss finished with a better SEC record on the road than at home.
Today's game will be broadcast via the SEC Network.
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