At 16-10 (7-6 SEC), Ole Miss has a puncher’s chance at the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels’ rollercoaster of a season has been defined (so far) by incongruent lineups, first-half woes and a real inability to build and ride out momentum. For a team that’s opening day starting lineup has only one of the original five, Sebastian Saiz, still regularly starting, 16-10 is a respectable record. But is it enough to punch a ticket to the big dance?
As it stands, Ole Miss sits 59th nationally in RPI, ranks 69th on KenPom and boasts the 31st toughest schedule in all of college basketball. Although they have faced an exceptionally tough schedule this year, the Rebels have not capitalized on these chances when presented, going 1-9 against the RPI top 60. The lone win inside the top 60 is Tennessee, a team trending downwards in terms of tournament stock. Additionally, Ole Miss doesn’t have a signature win. After squandering chances against Baylor, Creighton and Florida, the Rebels are left to fall back on their strength of schedule and close calls in tough games to propel them into the tournament.
Despite the fact that Ole Miss lacks a signature win, it also doesn’t have any bad losses, either. Nine of its 10 losses have come against RPI top 60 teams, and, as mentioned, the Rebels have put up valiant losing efforts in big games versus the likes of top 25 teams Baylor, Creighton and Florida. These losses may signify that Ole Miss passes the eye test–essentially the intangible ranking given to teams who look good on the court but don’t grade out on paper.
According to most basketball sources, Ole Miss is either “On the Bubble,” or “On the Horizon.” According to CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm, head coach Andy Kennedy’s squad is designated as one of the “First Four Out,” meaning it’s done enough work to be in the conversation, but there is much left to be done to get into the tournament. But despite the negative rhetoric, the mere fact that this team is in the conversation is positive.
If one word could be used to summarize all 26 of the Rebels’ games so far this year, it would have to be inconsistency. Inconsistency in the form of lineups, in stringing together wins, in scoring output, etc; objectively, this is a team that lacks a true identity. Enter Terence Davis. The sophomore has willed a rather abject Rebels team to two straight come-from-behind victories, averaging almost 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in the process. If Ole Miss wants to fulfill any tournament hopes, riding the coattails of the sophomore sensation will be key.
With that being said, Ole Miss desperately needs this sort of enthused play from Davis and company if it wants a chance to dance. With just five games left, Ole Miss cannot afford to lose again in the regular season. Currently a game back of fourth in the SEC standings, the Rebels control their own destiny from here on out. To climb to fourth, Ole Miss will need to upset tournament-hopeful Arkansas Saturday in Fayetteville, defeat Alabama and Mississippi State on the road and beat Missouri and 21st-ranked South Carolina at The Pavilion–and that’s just to get its foot in the door of the big dance.
It’s paramount that Ole Miss ends the season fourth in SEC play, because, historically, the selection committee has on average selected the top four teams from the conference to play in March. A top four seed would secure Ole Miss a double-bye in the SEC tournament, and one win would propel it to the semifinals. The Rebels arguably need to make it to the title game to truly control their own destiny, but winning out the regular season and making it to the semis should warrant a tournament berth.
Although the light at the end of the tunnel may seem bleak, there is still a light. The task of making it to the big dance is strenuous for any ball club, especially one whose success rests on the shoulders of a sophomore who came into the season as the team’s eighth man. And it’s been said before, but the road to March–albeit a narrow one–is paved by late-season success and momentum, two things the Rebels hope to (and must) build upon if they want to dance.