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UM Loses NIT Opener To Illinois State

Let there be no questions at this point — the SEC just wasn’t very good this season.  Blame motivation or bad matchups in the NIT, but a lackluster regular season that saw just four league teams make the NCAA field has given way to a poor postseason start for Mike Slive’s league.

Joining Mississippi State and LSU as first-round NIT losers was Ole Miss last night.  At home.  To Illinois State.

Like MSU and LSU, the Rebels came out flat as the proverbial pancake, fought back furiously, and finally fell.  In UM’s case, they got the game to overtime before being ousted 96-93 by a Redbird team that nailed 17 3-pointers on the night.

Now questions can begin to swirl about Andy Kennedy’s future.  Things in Starkville and Oxford are mighty similar these days, it seems.

Terrance Henry scored 21 points to lead the Rebels, but he admitted after the game that all wasn’t right.  “People were kinda down but I was trying to let everybody know we still had ball to play.”

LaDarius White’s summary was even more to the point: “Tonight we wasn’t focused at first.  We turned it on at the last minute.  Too late.”

Too late for Kennedy?  Well, the coach was a little more eager to talk up his foe than talk down his own squad’s effort after the game:

“C’mon, 74% from 3?  That’s crazy, and tip your cap to them.  I give them all the credit.  They made all the plays.  It’s amazing to me that we got it to (overtime).”

That’s probably not the kind of statement Rebel fans were looking for from their coach. 

In six seasons at Ole Miss, Kennedy has led the Rebels to five 20-win seasons and five NIT berths.  Twice they’ve reached Madison Square Garden as semifinalists.  The last two years, they’ve gone one-and-done.

Before Houston Nutt was canned and Pete Boone’s resignation was accepted, it was assumed that Kennedy would have one last shot to reach an NCAA Tournament or else.  Obviously, he didn’t reach the NCAAs, though his team made a nice little push to get on the bubble at year’s end.

But the buyout for Nutt, the cost of an all-new football staff, and the ongoing search for a replacement for Boone — who’s still the acting AD in Oxford — might just save Kennedy’s neck.  He’s also having to recruit to the worst arena in the SEC, let’s not forget that nugget.

Let’s face it, the guy is close.  Five NIT bids and five 20-win seasons (although each also featured 11 or more losses) shouldn’t be ignored.  Adolph Rupp?  No.  But that’s not a Darrin Horn train wreck, either.  And if the Rebels roll the dice on a new hoops coach they’re more likely to land a Horn than a Rupp.

At this point — without speaking to anyone on the ground in Oxford this morning — we think Kennedy might be passed along to Boone’s replacement as the ultimate “next guy’s problem.”  After all, most of the Rebs — aside from the senior Henry — should be back next season. 

But stay tuned…



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