Andy Kennedy’s Ole Miss Rebels just can’t seem to get over the hump (or “The Hump,” considering the Rebs’ loss at Mississippi State’s Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday.) Year after year Kennedy’s squads manage to win 20 games… and still miss out on the NCAA Tournament. With a terrible strength of schedule number and some gut-punch losses this season (like the one to MSU), it looks like history will repeat itself once more.
But for those UM fans who feel Andy is the worst Kennedy to impact Ole Miss since Jack, a quick look across state should work as a calming tonic, as a soothing balm, and as a warning.
Rick Stansbury had led Mississippi State to 293 wins in 14 seasons as the Bulldogs’ head coach. He’d won 20 games 10 times, including in 2011-12. A perfect coach? No. His last three teams failed to reach the NCAA Tournament. Also, the turbulence in and around his program during his final two seasons was self-created as the coach chose to sign and coddle controversial team-killer Renardo Sidney.
State fans had had enough. Stansbury saw the writing on the wall and resigned last spring as MSU’s all-time winningest coach and the SEC’s ninth-winningest coach all-time.
Despite dreams of landing a big-name coach, the best MSU could do was hire Clemson assistant Rick Ray as Stansbury’s replacement. Ray inherited a mess as most of the Bulldog team pulled up stakes and left as soon as their old coach stepped down. This season has been one of misery in Starkville — an 8-20 record, a 3-13 mark in the SEC, and a 13-game losing streak that was finally snapped on Saturday.
Ray might turn out to be the best coach in history of college basketball, but it appears the rebuilding job before him will be a difficult one. Certainly more difficult than what Stansbury would have faced had he not been pressured to resign.
If Ole Miss fans are upset that Ray finally ended his team’s long losing streak against their Rebels, that’s perfectly fair. But they should compare the two squads’ overall records — 8-20 versus 21-8 — before dialing up a call-in show to demand Kennedy’s scalp.
Everyone around the league will tell you that when it comes to the worst basketball facility in the Southeastern Conference, Kennedy’s shackled to it. Kentucky’s John Calipari said in January: “Would you please build the guy a new building? I mean, the locker room we’re in, I’m like looking for squirrels in there… This is the only bad building on the whole campus.” The 47-year-old Tad Smith Coliseum has even dealt with power outages and rain-outs in the last two years. Yes, really.
The Tad Pad is finally scheduled to be replaced by the 2015-16 season and that could do wonders for Kennedy’s ability to lure quality players to Oxford. Already he is Mississippi’s all-time winningest coach and he’s one of just a handful of SEC coaches to reach the 20-win mark in six of his first seven seasons as a head coach. Might better facilities aid recruiting enough to boost the Rebels’ record by a game or two each season? And might that be enough to propel UM into the NCAA Tournament instead of the NIT on a semi-regular basis?
There’s no question, Ole Miss’ slide from 17-2 to 21-8 has been disappointing. Expectations were raised and now Kennedy is having to deal with fans outraged over a 4-6 skid in his team’s last 10 games. But there’s the devil you know and the devil you don’t and 21-8 overall and 10-6 in the SEC aren’t too bad when viewed in proper perspective.
Mississippi State is dealing with the devil its fans didn’t know. Upset by a lack of NCAA tourneys for three seasons, they’re now finding out that 20-wins and an NIT bid beats the hell — in keeping with the devil talk — out of an eight-win campaign.
Kennedy’s program is showing no signs of decline. While there’s been a fall-off with this year’s team over the last five weeks, he’s still cranking out 20 wins per year. As long as he’s doing so, Rebel fans should patiently await the building of UM’s new arena. If Kennedy’s program nosedives before 2015, then make a move. If Kennedy can’t take advantage of the new arena once it’s built and he continues to post NIT season after NIT season, then make a move.
But to jettison the school’s best-ever coach before he’s actually given better tools to work with would be extremely risky. Kennedy’s program has an obvious ceiling that the Rebels keep bumping up against. But a quick look across the way to Starkville should show that it’s better to be talking about a ceiling than the basement.