Last Year it was the Pac-12, this season it seems it is the SEC’s turn for a down year among the power conferences and being near the top of everyone’s “disappointment so far” lists. The conference is getting little respect outside of Florida, Missouri and a Kentucky team that may get stronger but has struggled with sky-high expectations coming off last season’s national title. So little respect that a 12-2 Mississippi Rebels team not only wasn’t ranked but failed to receive any votes in either January 7th national polls.
#10 Florida is the best team thus far in the conference but after that Missouri is once again without Laurence Bowers who has a sprained MCL, after that talent wise at least Kentucky should be next but the young Cats are 10-5, nearly blew a 16-point lead to Vanderbilt and allowed Elston Turner to drop 40 on them at Rupp in a 83-71 loss to Texas A&M. You can picture the Rebels jumping up and down frantically waving their hands saying what about us.
The team in Oxford despite being 12-2 was barely on the mind of people wondering who the 3rd best team in the SEC. Granted their best win was arguably against Rutgers, Hawaii or Tennessee, but the team was also five points away from being 14-0. They lost by three on the road to a good Middle Tennessee State team and lost by two in overtime to Indiana State at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. In need of a win that would get people paying attention to what Andy Kennedy has cooking, in walked the 10th ranked Missouri Tigers on Saturday.
The home team jumped out to 9-0 lead and never looked back as the led by as many as 20 in the second half en route to a 64-49 win. Yes Mizzou was without Bowers but Mississippi also forced 19 turnovers and held Phil Pressey to 10 points and five assists (he also committed five turnovers). Seniors Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner combined for 22 points (all Holloway’s) and 18 rebounds in the win, surely a little respect would be coming right? Well sort, of the Rebels are in the “others receiving votes” category ranking 29th/30th in the two polls this week.
The Rebels haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2001 where they made the Sweet 16 as a 3 seed. Under Kennedy the Rebels have five trips to the NIT but nary an NCAA bid of any kind despite a 138-79 record. Looking at the 2012-13 version of the Rebels who average 82.4 points per game good enough for 7th in the country have four guys; seniors Reginald Buckner, Murphy Holloway and Nick Williams and they are led by junior Marshall Henderson at 18.6 points per game. Aside from the points it’s the other categories where they excel that makes this version more capable of reaching the brass ring than previous ones. As of Jan. 13 Ole Miss allows just 63.7 points per game and defend the three-pointer at a rate of 26%, good enough for 4th in the country. They also rebound (41.3 per game) and force nearly 18 turnovers per contest while only committing 12 of their own. If that wasn’t enough they also rank in the top 13 nationally in blocked shots (13th) and steals per game (10th ) and as many people have said, defense doesn’t which gives Mississippi a fighting chance in any game, as was evidenced by the win over Missouri. For the first time in a win this year the Rebels scored less than 73 points, but what they did to the Tigers defensively should make people take notice, a team that averages nearly 77 points were held to 49 and shot just 2-18 from 3-point land.
The Junior Henderson is well traveled having started his career at Utah before transferring to Texas Tech where he left the program before even suiting up after Pat Knight was let go. He then landed at South Plains College where he led them to a National Junior College National Championship and a perfect 36-0 record in 2011-12 before landing in Oxford. He wasted no time making an impact for Andy Kennedy, averaging 22 points in his first three games before scoring just nine in a win over McNeese State, the only game he has tallied single digits.
Henderson is flanked by a pair of senior forwards in Holloway and Buckner. The duo is a perfect set of bookends for the diminutive scorer that Henderson is, Buckner is the bruiser, big body down low and Holloway is the do everything athletic wingman that is averaging a double-double.
Another compliment to this group for Kennedy is sophomore guard Jarvis Summers, the Jackson, Mississippi native has played well since the loss to Indiana State averaging 10 points and three assists over the last five games while committing just one turnover.
While there are faint comparisons to the 2012 Pac-12, we have to remember they only had Colorado reach the second round of the tournament. Bracketologists across the country have the SEC earning 3-4 bids, they may be having a down year but they do have two top 15 teams and a young team in Kentucky that will win enough games to be in the conversation for a bid. The door however is as open for Mississippi as it has been for a while and the win against Missouri may be the first step in getting them on the tongues of those talking about what to make of the SEC after Florida and Missouri.