It’s hard to say tonight’s game against Kentucky is Ole Miss’ last shot at NCAA Tournament redemption. After all, it was only one year ago that the Rebels took the drama out of their Selection Sunday by running the table in the SEC Tournament. But the odds this season are heavily against another automatic bid for Ole Miss. That makes tonight’s match-up with the Wildcats in Tad Smith Coliseum something of a last stand for Andy Kennedy’s team. The Rebels (7-5 SEC) sit alone in fourth place in the conference standings, but they are coming off close road losses to RPI #116 Alabama and RPI #85 Georgia. Those were damaging, no doubt, but the Rebels are not completely dead as they currently rank #67 in the latest RPI. That’s certainly not an enviable position for mid-February, but it isn’t so far out of the picture that a late season run can’t fix their prospects. If such a run is to happen, it needs to start tonight at home against a team that pounded the Rebels a mere 14 days ago.
So what needs to change for Kennedy’s squad since its loss at Rupp Arena? For one, they can’t get hammered on the boards (-15) like they did in that game, and their last two losses (-23). In their lone win in the last four games, the Rebels edged out Missouri on the glass by one and did so largely by fighting for loose balls and starting the game with better energy. With freshman Dwight Coleby seeing the floor more often in recent weeks, Kennedy now has five bigs he trusts in his regular rotation. The Rebels need these numbers to translate into relentless effort to counter Kentucky’s talented and athletic front line. Ole Miss doesn’t need to win the rebounding battle, it just needs to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. Of course, that’s easier said than done against the Wildcats. A return to normalcy for Sebastian Saiz would go a long way. If you remove the Missouri game from consideration, he’s grabbed only two rebounds in his last 44 minutes of game action. Saiz still has a healthy 15.7 percent defensive rebounding rate (the highest on the team) on the year, so he can be a big part of cutting into Kentucky’s advantage on the glass.