The Rebels look set to test their mettle over the coming weeks against a number of challenging teams. After a series of impressive wins, including one against reigning Atlantic 10 champion Saint Joseph’s, Ole Miss snapped back to reality with a loss in the Paradise Jam final against 10th-ranked Creighton. Head Coach Andy Kennedy had no illusions about the loss.
“Creighton is just really good. They make more plays than us; they go 16 for 26, and they deserve to win the title over there,” Kennedy said.
Three days after flying back from the tropical tournament based out of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Rebels bounced back and posted a big 86-81 win against perennial Big Sky Conference powerhouse Montana. Led by University of New Mexico transfer Cullen Neal, who contributed 19 points and went five for eight from behind the ark, Ole Miss came out firing on all cylinders after competing with the Bluejays to the bitter end.
“I definitely think we had a good confidence level coming out of the Virgin Islands,” Neal said. “I mean obviously it wasn’t the result we wanted, but I think we can feel good about losing a close game to a top 10 team in the country.”
Now, the Rebels look forward to a packed schedule with games against Middle Tennessee State, Memphis, Virginia Tech and Murray State up next. The Ole Miss staff, led by Kennedy for the 11th consecutive year, understands both the difficulty and the reward from playing talented teams.
“They’re going to be tough; they’re not going to give us anything free,” Kennedy said. “It’ll be a good challenge for our team, I think it’ll be one that we need in order for us to continue to move the program forward.”
Deandre Burnett, who transferred here from Miami last season but was not eligible to play until this year, has stood out as a game changer for the Rebels all season. He currently holds the national record for points in a game this season with 41 during the Rebels’ Paradise Jam win against Oral Roberts. Burnett, a junior, acknowledged how important a loss can be, especially against a program like Creighton, for the maturation process of his team.
“It was a big measuring stick. They are a top 10 team that can shoot it and guard it,” Burnett said. “We fought; we were leading that game for 26 minutes, and that shows what kind of team we’re capable of having. We give that effort for 40 minutes instead of 26 minutes, and who knows.”
To add to the difficulty of its upcoming schedule, Ole Miss is about to enter exam week. Student-athletes, even at Ole Miss, cannot escape the harsh reality of cumulative reviews and term papers.
“You get into exams, which are never easy,” Kennedy said. “They’re going to test these guys in other aspects.”
All in all, Ole Miss fans will have plenty to keep their eyes on over the coming weeks. The Rebs play Middle Tennessee and Memphis at home on Wednesday and Saturday respectively and then take a brief road trip to Virginia Tech before heading back home to face Murray State next Thursday.