Andy Kennedy’s Rebels are finally playing to the potential that has seemed to elude them all season. It was largely a season defined by inconsistency that came with the wins and losses en route to a 9-8 conference record. Ole Miss basketball was never really able to turn big-time scoring into big-time wins. Until now, that is.
Booted from the SEC Tournament by Arkansas and having any hopes of a bid to the NCAA Tournament dashed in the process, Ole Miss was forced to check its pride and compete in the National Invitation Tournament. What the tournament lacks in national recognition, it makes up for with underrated teams and intense matchups.
With a string of victories that included the takedown of top-seeded Syracuse, who was the national champion 14 years ago, Ole Miss has a very good shot at running the table and taking home its very first postseason trophy. Standing in the Rebels’ way in the quarterfinals is Georgia Tech, led by coach Josh Pastner, formerly of Memphis.
The Yellow Jackets are entering Tuesday night’s matchup with the Rebels as an underdog in seeding but boast talent that could rival Kennedy’s own. The game will be held in Oxford at The Pavilion, giving Ole Miss a much-needed home advantage. This could prove invaluable, as Georgia Tech went a measly 2-10 when playing away from home during the season and had the benefit of playing both NIT games thus far in its own gym.
Added to the Rebels’ home-court advantage is the simple fact that Ole Miss has been on fire lately. In their last two matchups, the Rebels have shot better than their season average from the field, including an impressive .516 from the field at Monmouth. Not to mention the past two games have seen the two highest 3-point percentages all season – the game at Syracuse, in particular, saw the Rebels sink a season-high 15 from beyond the arc.
Looking past the statistics, the Rebels are simply playing better together. Senior Sebastian Saiz, playing in his second and final postseason appearance, put it best by noting the increase in unselfish play.
“The chemistry has been very good all year outside of the arena, but once we got in the court, people were looking out for themselves and their numbers,” Saiz said. “Now [that the regular season and SEC Tournament] are over, I think we are playing together great [again]. We don’t care who scores. We play basketball.”
That return to simplicity, to just playing basketball and not fearing the expectations or desiring the individual accolades, is what has Ole Miss on track to compete for a spot in the quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden, “the mecca of basketball in the world,” as Saiz called it. If the Rebels can repeat the level of play they have shown the past two games, not just against Georgia Tech but through to next season, they might just get invited to a different tournament next March.