Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
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I realize how odd this type of column may sound just days after the Ole Miss Rebel men's basketball team improved to 22-8 on the year (11-6 in the SEC) with an 87 to 83 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Tad Pad, but barring some miraculous series of wins in the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament to propel this program into the NCAA Tournament, this is most likely Andy Kennedy's last year in Oxford as the head of our varsity men's basketball program.
Put the most recent victory and the season's winning records aside though, and you cannot help but notice that this season will most likely mark the seventh consecutive season under the leadership of Coach Kennedy which will not see the Ole Miss Rebels make the NCAA tournament - the longest such postseason drought in the conference.
Calling for his head or even predicting his firing still seems a bit strange though, if only because Kennedy has never really had a bad season in Oxford, and he has recently earned the right to be called the winningest basketball coach in the history of the program. But, with his seventh season in charge of the program winding down, we find ourselves yet again on the outside looking in at the March Madness picture, something which seemed a mere impossibility just a few weeks ago when the Rebs were considered arguably one of the better teams in the SEC.
It is that set of circumstances - those of a highly anticipated team which succeeds early only to fade down the stretch and just barely miss the NCAA postseason - which have come to define Andy Kennedy's head coaching tenure. And for such to be the case this season, with a veteran laden team supplemented by a hot junior college transfer and bolstered by a weak SEC, we Rebel fans should accept that, in spite of how much we may like the guy, he has hit his ceiling as a head basketball coach in this league.
Consider the timeline of events in 2012-13 for the Andy Kennedy led Rebels. A hot 7-0 start ended on the road to a surprisingly good Middle Tennessee State team before a trip to Hawaii was marred by a loss to Indiana State in Diamond Head Classic tournament. No worries though, as neither loss could be considered all that bad, outside of the fact that, with them, this team did not have a good win to fall back on.
The Rebs then started 6-0 in the SEC, bolting up to a #16 overall ranking. That was cut short by an understandable yet heartbreaking home loss to Kentucky and an inevitable road loss to Florida. At that point, the team seemed to just give up on whatever hopes they had of being one of the SEC's few representatives in March Madness. Losses to Missouri and Texas A&M on the road stung, but they were not nearly as damning as losses to the two worst teams in the Southeastern Conference - South Carolina and Mississippi State. Once those losses were cemented, so were Andy Kennedy's job security and lost fan support.
And that is ultimately Coach Kennedy's biggest flaw. He has yet to demonstrate that he can coach a team to win a game with something of significance on the line. It seems that every year around this time, Ole Miss basketball is just a game or two away from postseason contention - games which are ultimately lost. And whether it be bad luck or bad coaching, one cannot allow that to continue for an eighth season in Oxford.
Who knows, maybe we cannot do much better as a program than Andy Kennedy without significant upgrades in facilities and fan support, but one must seriously consider the alternative action to firing Coach Kennedy, which is namely inaction on the behalf of Athletics Director Ross Bjork. If something does not happen, and a change is not made or even alluded to, it would effectively be the Ole Miss athletics administration saying "you know, we really don't care about basketball around here, so miss the NCAA Tournament for seven consecutive years if you'd like."
Considering that, I would argue that at this point, the price of inaction is as high, if not higher, than a poor action. If we are going to be serious about SEC basketball at Ole Miss, going so far as to construct a state-of-the-art arena on campus in the next few years, we will need to demonstrate that to prospective coaches, players, and donors. I feel that letting Andy Kennedy go may be the most effective way to demonstrate that commitment. I am grateful for his wins and his ability to elevate our expectations, and I think watching Ole Miss basketball has, at times, been a heck of a lot of fun under his leadership, but we need to start seeing other people.