Sweet Music (City)

Ole Miss won't know its SEC Tournament opponent, Tennessee or LSU, until mid-afternoon today. Regardless, Friday's quarterfinal is arguably the most important game to date.

Ole Miss can patiently wait, though. A much-needed breather, if you will.

With a first-round bye, there's no need to rush, really. The Rebels, a No. 2 seed, are 21-9 overall and 9-7 in league play. The battle back to the proverbial bubble has been long and winding.

After five losses in six games, Ole Miss finished the regular season on a four-game win streak, and enters Nashville, Tenn., with meaningful basketball left to play. Friday could be considered a play-in game of sorts for the NCAA Tournament, especially if matched with the Volunteers.

Andy Kennedy knows its importance. Same for Chris Warren and his teammates. Ole Miss hasn't made a March Madness appearance in eight seasons.

Patience is a virtue, I guess.

"From hearsay, I guess we're still on the bubble," junior point guard Chris Warren said. "We need to knock down a few games in the SEC Tournament. Hopefully one or two games will do it. I know if we win three games, we're in there. We're going to try and win three games."

Whether it be Tennessee (23-7, 11-5) or LSU (11-19, 2-14), the opponent is sure to be familiar.

Ole Miss took two wins over the Tigers this season, and lost an ever-so-close heartbreak in Knoxville. The Rebels led by 12 late in the second half, only to fall in overtime.

"We'll be prepared for both teams," Kennedy said. "Between now and then, it would be foolish to get too in-tuned with any particular opponent. We're just trying to improve on what we do. Whoever we play on Friday, we understand the magnitude of the game."

Weighing in the Rebels' favor is strong road and neutral-court performances this season.

On the year, Ole Miss holds a 9-5 record away from home court, with impressive wins against Kansas State and UTEP. The Rebels five conference victories away from Tad Smith Coliseum were Georgia, LSU, Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama.

However, four conference home losses stand as noticeable blemishes.

"There's no home games in the NCAA Tournament," said Kennedy of the disparity between the team's play on the road than at home.

"We've typically been better the other way. I wish there was a patented answer, but there really isn't. We have played a little better on the road."

Friday's winner will go on to face Kentucky at noon Saturday in the semifinals. Kentucky, like Tennessee, is a sure bet for an NCAA Tournament bid.

The Wildcats, with a final record of 29-2 (14-2), boast the SEC Player of the Year in John Wall and the SEC Freshman of the Year in DeMarcus Cousins. They've proven vulnerable, though, with losses to South Carolina and, more recently, Tennessee.

But Kentucky can wait, for now. There are more pressing matters at hand.

"I know we've got another opportunity Friday against someone," Kennedy said. "All we can do is continue to try and get better. Where our team is right now, I hope that we can continue to play, because I think we're getting better. We had a stretch during the season where that wasn't the case.

"I can see now our swagger back. Our guys are playing with more confidence. I'm hopeful we can see how far this ride can take us."

Buckner honored, close to full health:

Yes, he's only a freshman, but Reginald Buckner casts an awfully big shadow.

He missed four games this season, and was noticeably limited in a few others, thanks to a bum ankle. Ole Miss opened the conference schedule 4-2, but soon turned south after he hit the floor in pain at Auburn in late January.

He returned to face Vanderbilt and Florida, but the results remained the same. The Rebels dropped both by a combined seven points. Buckner was tentative. The blossoming post presence looked, well, like a freshman again.

However, in a comeback win over Arkansas, he returned to form. Buckner had four blocks, altered a handful of others, and is now only four shy of tying the single-season school record.

"When he went down, no one really understood the impact," Kennedy said. "Now he's gotten back and really, for the first time in the last seven to 10 days, he's running without a limp and playing with energy. It's just a matter of getting him back to game shape, which he's lost. But at least he's healthy and affecting the game for us again."

Bucker was named to the SEC All-Freshman team earlier in the week. He's averaging 4.4 points per game and 4.4 rebounds.

With Buckner, Ole Miss is 20-6 and averages 79.5 points per game, while allowing 69.0 points per game. In his four-game absence, the Rebels went 1-3 and were out-scored 75.8 to 71.2.

"I feel good, because when I was out with my ankle injury, I stayed in the weight room and running in the pool," the 6-foot-9 Buckner said. "I'm in pretty good shape. I'm about 90-95 percent."

Polynice (partially) returns:

Eniel Polynice never made the trip to Fayetteville. The junior, after expressing his disapproval of playing time following a win over LSU, quit the team days before.

But he quickly reversed course. He wanted back and approached Kennedy. His future lay in the hands of the fourth-year head coach.

Tuesday, Kennedy announced Polynice had rejoined the team. His playing time in the SEC Tournament has yet to be determined, however. He'll have to meet the criteria of Kennedy, who calls the situation a "family issue."

"We've seen when E.P.'s on top of his game, he brings a dynamic to our team that we don't have," he said. "His ability to facilitate and manufacture off the bounce is something that we miss. But we've got to have that E.P.

"He's back with us. It was a family issue that will remain in the family. Now my hope is he can come back and help this team."

Warren, who has spent the last few years in the same backcourt with Polynice, would be thrilled to see his teammate in uniform.

"E.P. is a big part of the team. We missed him in the Arkansas game," Warren, having scored 31 points against the Razorbacks, said. "Hopefully he's back, and we'll be clicking on all cylinders (in the SEC Tournament). He's big to our team. We need him. I'd love to see him back."


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