On Tuesday, a day after the college football season finally drew to a close with the BCS national championship game, college basketball bracketologists, from Sports Illustrated senior writer Andy Glockner to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, rolled out their latest projections and breakdowns.
Lunardi had Ole Miss (11-2) as one of his “last four in” the NCAA tournament, a No. 12 seed, playing Colorado State in Dayton. Glockner noted no good wins and no bad losses for Ole Miss in its pursuit of its first tournament appearance since 2002, the definition of a bubble team with something to prove in its league schedule.
The Rebels get their first chance tonight, when they travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to open Southeastern Conference play against Tennessee at 7 p.m. CST.
“My concern is on our team and trying to control the things that we can control,” Kennedy said. “Already, people are talking about how many bids does this league get, how many does that league get. I understand you have to talk about something, but to me, that’s crazy.
“We’re probably six to eight weeks (away) before those numbers start to make sense.”
Here are the numbers so far: Ole Miss’ current RPI is 63. Its strength of schedule is 225. Losses to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State stand as its lone blemishes.
Thing is, there are precious few opportunities for a resume-building win remaining. The SEC, by all accounts, is in a down year, meaning Ole Miss has little margin for error. Tonight’s game is important, to say the least.
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No. 10 Florida and No. 11 Missouri are the only teams ranked in the RPI top 60. Kentucky, the defending national champions, is off to an uncharacteristically slow start, with an overall record of just 9-4, and out of both major polls.
Ole Miss will face four teams in its league schedule -- Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State -- currently ranked outside of the top 200 in the RPI.
“I’m a numbers guy and I watch the different numbers,” Kennedy said. “At this stage, one game can swing you 20 to 25 points one way or the other. I don’t think (those numbers) become relevant until mid-February.
“But right now, one game will swing you. We’ve got to do what we can control and that’s take advantage of our opportunities.”
The non-league schedule wasn’t kind to the SEC. The final tally: just nine wins against teams in the top 50 RPI, compared to 20 losses to teams ranked 100th or worse.
“Has our league missed some opportunities in the non-league? No question,” Kennedy said. “We haven’t. We’re still alive. We control our own destiny. We have to do our work in league play.”
Two months of basketball remain. For Kennedy, bracketology and RPI and NCAA tournament resumes can wait.
Because anything can happen in conference play, and Tennessee, like Ole Miss, enters tonight’s game looking to get off to a good start in a winnable SEC.
“The one thing I’m pleased with is we won 11 times out of 13,” Kennedy said of the non-league. “As a coach, you’re never truly comfortable with where you are, because you know what’s in store for you.
“I know what’s going to happen Wednesday night. I know the environment, I know the intensity ratchets up, I know we’re now in an 18-game grind. Every game, we’ve got to be prepared to play. I’m looking forward to seeing if this team is ready for that challenge.”
The Volunteers are 8-4 overall, their RPI at 74 and strength of schedule at 62. They’ll be without senior forward Jeronne Maymon, who is out for the season with a left knee injury. Maymon will take a redshirt, the school announced Sunday.
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Kennedy compared Maymon to Ole Miss senior forward Murphy Holloway. “He’s their energy,” Kennedy said. “He’s their enforcer.” Maymon led Tennessee with 8.1 rebounds per game last season. He had nine double-doubles.
“They’re not as good as they’re supposed to be,” sophomore point guard Jarvis Summers said. “It’s just like taking Murph off our team. It’s going to be tough, but I think we can get the win.”
The game marks the 12th time in the last 15 years the Rebels will open conference play on the road. Ole Miss has an overall record of 26-53 in SEC openers, and the Rebels are looking for their first league-opening win under Kennedy.
Ole Miss and Tennessee have met 108 times, with Tennessee holding a 69-39 lead in the all-time series. Ole Miss claimed an overtime win in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament last season to snap a four-game losing streak to the Volunteers.
“I’m ready,” Summers said. “It’s been a long journey. Time to get back at it. It’s the SEC. It’s going to be hard going on the road. Everybody’s good in conference. It’s going to be a grinding game. We’ve just got to play hard. It’s going to be a tough one.”