Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy admits it's bittersweet being known as college basketball's king of the NIT.
Five times in Kennedy's six full seasons at Ole Miss, the Rebels have won at least 20 games but at the end of each of those seasons they've settled for an NIT bid.
On the one hand, that's a remarkable accomplishment at a school whose basketball program existed for almost a century prior to Kennedy's arrival yet only had six 20-win seasons and three NCAA tournament victories to show for it. On the other hand, Kennedy would dearly love to help Ole Miss take the next step forward this March and reach his first NCAA tournament.
"We've done some things here that I'm very proud of and we've got this program moving in the right direction, but I know at the end of the day in college basketball, the emphasis is on March Madness," Kennedy said. "That's certainly the goal every year. Now my hope is for these guys, especially these seniors, that this year we can take that next step."
Ole Miss has ascended into position to achieve that goal thanks to a 14-2 start validated by a top 50 RPI and three straight wins to open SEC play.
Last Saturday, in front of a national TV audience and a rare sellout home crowd, Ole Miss secured the signature win it needed, leading then-No. 10 Missouri from the opening tipoff until the final buzzer en route to a 64-49 rout. Sandwiched around that game were victories at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, ensuring this season will be the first in 43 years in which the Rebels have won on the road against both the Commodores and Vols.
Even though Ole Miss is a home win against Arkansas this Saturday away from its first 4-0 start to SEC play since 1937, Kennedy is taking nothing for granted. The Rebels have piled up gaudy mid-January records before during his tenure, even starting 13-0 in his second season, but they've always wound up on the fringes of the NCAA tournament picture.
"We've certainly put ourselves in position to [contend for an NCAA bid], but we're three games into an 18-game league schedule, there's a lot of basketball left to be played and we have to make sure we take care of our business," Kennedy said.
"Of the six years I've been here prior, maybe four of those we've had opportunities deep into February that would have allowed us to take the next step and we didn't take advantage of them. For us, it's about taking advantage of those opportunities this year, and we've done a good job to this point."
The biggest key to Ole Miss' success this season has been Kennedy's decision to gamble on Marshall Henderson, a high-scoring but well-traveled guard who had bounced from Utah to Texas Tech to a junior college the previous three years.
At this time last year, Kennedy dismissed leading scorer Dundrecous Nelson as a result of multiple failed drug tests, leaving the Rebels in desperate need of a perimeter scorer capable of easing the scoring burden on the rest of the team. That convinced Kennedy to make a push to land Henderson, who had experienced a few off-court issues yet also started almost every game as a freshman at Utah and earned national junior college player of the year honors last year after leading South Plains College to a 36-0 record.
"The Thursday before the start of SEC play last year, I had to dismiss my leading scorer, a guard who was a volume scorer and pretty productive putting the ball in the basket," Kennedy said. "We go to LSU. We get pounded. And I remember meeting with the staff as we were leaving and saying, 'Hey listen, we've got an issue here. There's nothing we can do about it now, but we've got to address it moving forward. We scoured the country to find the right guy, and Marshall obviously fit that."
It's not easy persuading elite prospects to play for an Ole Miss program with little history of success, so Kennedy has had to take some guys other coaches have shied away from in order to raise the talent level.
In the case of Jelan Kendrick, an ex-McDonald's All-American who transferred to Ole Miss after being dismissed as a freshman at Memphis, the gamble didn't pay off as he played sparingly for one season before bolting for UNLV. In the case of Henderson, it has worked out far better.
Not only does Kennedy insist Henderson has been "zero maintenance" off the floor, the 6-foot-2 junior has also been exactly the catalyst Mississippi needed on it. He is averaging an SEC-best 19.1 points per game and has ramped up his scoring in SEC play, erupting for a career-high 32 at Tennessee and sinking a game-tying 35 footer at the buzzer to force overtime at Vanderbilt.
Though Henderson is a classic volume scorer who shoots just below 40 percent from the field and averages more than 10 3-point attempts per game, his lack of conscience and trademark bravado has been effective so far. Opposing defenses have had to pay so much attention to him that it has freed interior players like forwards Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner for easier shots around the rim.
"I want him to be super aggressive but within the confines of what we're trying to accomplish and he has done a much better job of that of late," Kennedy said. "He has unlimited range, he's getting to the free throw line consistently and he extends your defense, which allows for better spacing. Also one of the strengths of our team has been our ability to offensive rebound. Teams get so strung out trying to chase him a lot of times if you use him in ball screen action, that the big setting the screen will be able to get to the offensive glass."
In a weaker-than-usual SEC featuring a half dozen teams enduring rebuilding seasons, Ole Miss can't afford to finish in the middle of the pack and hope that's good enough for an NCAA bid this year. A top four finish and maybe another win over one of the league's elite teams would go a long way toward getting the Rebels into the field of 68 and enabling their coach to get to experience March's main stage for the first time instead of the auxiliary one.
"Through 16 games, I hope that we realize the approach we have to take to be successful," Kennedy said. "You've got to prepare every day and go perform. It's staying in the proper mindset so that our approach is good day in and day out."