By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
The lack of an NCAA Tournament appearance on Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy’s resume wasn’t just a monkey on his back, it was more like the 800-pound gorilla in the room that had taken up residence and didn’t appear to be going anywhere, at least not this season.
On March 2, the same team that started out 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference, lost to Mississippi State and its six scholarship players, most of them freshmen. That loss followed another head-scratching defeat at South Carolina, which followed another at Texas A&M. The Rebels were fading, and not so slowly, into the good night, and fans and media who were critical of Kennedy’s job turned up the intensity of their grousing.
Never mind that Kennedy had won 20 games in six of his first seven seasons in Oxford, something that had never been done before, and the only season he didn’t, All-SEC point guard Chris Warren blew out his knee with three months worth of games still to play. Never mind that each of those 20-win seasons was accompanied by a trip to the NIT. If the NCAAs were the ultimate barometer of success, the fact Kennedy hadn’t taken Ole Miss there was, like that gorilla, too much for most people to ignore.
Two weeks after that apparently devastating loss at Mississippi State, a good man and a good coach, with the help of a small but scrappy band of players that had been given up for dead, robbed Kennedy’s critics of their only argument against him, and in the process rubber-stamped validation on his program.
In Kennedy’s seventh season at Ole Miss, the Rebels have played their way into the NCAA Tournament. Their improbable Lazarus act included regular-season ending wins over Alabama and LSU, the latter on the road, which had become a scary place for a few agonizing weeks. And that momentum carried over to the SEC Tournament, where the Rebels dispatched Missouri, Vanderbilt and, in Sunday’s championship game, mighty Florida to earn the SEC’s automatic bid.
Those who know Kennedy best know he did nothing different the last two weeks than he’s done the last eight seasons.
“When you lose, people are always gonna put blame on the coach,” said senior forward Murphy Holloway, who played two seasons for Kennedy, transferred to South Carolina because of family issues, and then decided he missed Oxford, and Kennedy. “But he’s a great coach. He’s very passionate. He loves the game so much, and he knows what we’re capable of. So he holds us accountable. He does a great job of that.
“I’m glad I stuck around long enough to be able to do this for coach. I love that guy so much. He’s like a father figure to me.”
Assistant coach Al Pinkins has been at Kennedy’s side only two seasons, but he’s well familiar with the history of basketball at Ole Miss, which has enjoyed only sporadic pockets of success.
“I think the average person doesn’t know how hard it is to turn a program like he’s done,” Pinkins said. “All the consecutive 20-win seasons? He’s done a tremendous job.”
“Those 20-win seasons, when other coaches are struggling to get to .500, those speak volumes,” said Ole Miss assistant Serio Rouco. “Coach Kennedy deserves this. I’m ecstatic for him.”
Kennedy doesn’t necessarily hold it against anyone who may have been hung up on that gap in his resume. He understands how things work.
“To get to the NCAA Tournament is the Mecca,” Kennedy said. “Your average fan gets excited about March Madness. So if their team isn’t a part of it, something’s wrong.”
After March 2, even Kennedy might have been concerned about whether an NCAA bid was ever going to happen for his program, or whether he’d continue to be around to try and make it happen. But that loss to Mississippi State didn’t break him, or his team. It strengthened their resolve.
“Our guys have been in must-win games for a long time now,” Pinkins said. “I think that helped them, because they played off energy, played off emotion. Andy’s great with that. He’s like, ‘guys, stay in the moment. Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing or saying. Worry about Ole Miss, and at the end of the day, it’ll happen for us.’ ”
“Every game has had a prize,” Kennedy said. “After we lost in Starkville, we were fortunate because our next game [against Alabama] was senior night. We wanted to send those guys off on the right note. We won and it gave us some life. Then we had to go to LSU and fight for the bye [into the SEC tournament quarterfinals.]
“And then we got [to Nashville], and everybody said we had to beat Missouri. We beat Missouri, and everybody’s still saying, well, you better get another one. At that point, you’re sitting on that fine line, and you don’t want to leave it in somebody else’s hands.”
The last two weeks have become a microcosm of Kennedy’s time in Oxford. For six of his previous seasons, he coached teams capable of playing in the NCAA Tournament, but a missed shot here, a blown defensive assignment there, a crippling injury, a momentary lack of focus by a key player, something, always kept the Rebels out. Running that sort of gauntlet can either toughen a guy up or run him out of coaching.
Kennedy chose to brace up.
Asked to sum up what the accomplishment of finally breaking through to the Big Dance means, Kennedy had a ready answer.
“It proves something to me that I try to teach to my own children, and my boys in that locker room,” Kennedy said. “Perseverance is valuable. I try to preach that, but sometimes it’s hard to live it. To me, it’s gratifying to know that if you stay the course, eventually you’ll get your shot.”