The importance of tomorrow night's basketball game in Morgantown is a testament to Andy Kennedy's effort to improve the out of conference schedule at Ole Miss. In years past, if we played a team the caliber of West Virginia, that game generally be the only legitimate team we would play before conference play began in January. Because of Kennedy's ability to schedule respected teams for this season (Indiana, Kansas State, Villanova, UTEP, Southern Miss), the Rebels have seen some very tough matchups, but thankfully pulled out all but one. Currently, our RPI is soaring and the team is ranked in the top-15 for the first time since 2007.
A loss tomorrow night could see all of that take a significant setback. If we're to lose, we would be heading into conference play having dropped a heartbreaking two out of three games to ranked opponents. That would be difficult on our psyche in a year when many think the SEC West is a two-team race. Remember, we are Ole Miss, and history can easily repeat itself in Oxford. Just two seasons ago, our Rebels strolled into Knoxville with a nice 13-0 record and a top-20 ranking. They left at 13-1. For the remainder of that season, Kennedy's team never really righted itself mentally until it was too late. Make no mistakes about it; a loss tomorrow night could put a damper on the early season and be very damaging to our team's impressive momentum.
But a win.... well, a win would be monumental.
First, let's examine what a win over the number six ranked West Virginia Mountaineerswould do for our RPI. The Rebels, a top-25 RPI team, could be propelled into the top-15 or, if things fall in favor, even the top-10. That doesn't so much guarantee anything, but with wins over Kansas State, UTEP, and Southern Miss looking better week after week, a high RPI headed into conference play would make an NCAA tournament berth all the more obtainable.
Secondly, the Rebels, a nationally ranked team, are being given an excellent opportunity to play on a national stage against another nationally ranked team on Wednesday night. A win would mean an all-but-guaranteed jump into the Associated Press' top 10-12 range, if not into the top-10 altogether. The national exposure which would be brought with that would only cause the program to appear favorable in the eyes of talking heads, recruits, and the NCAA tournament selection committee.
With regards to individuals, if Terrico White were to have a big night in Morgantown, his draft stock could conceiveably shoot up quite a bit. He has already generated some draft buzz as one of the nation's top sophomores, but if he can matchup with WVU's guards and maybe posterize their bigs once or twice, he will be damn-near a lock for an NBA roster come next fall.
Stop. Before you ask how Terrico White's being drafted is good for our program, think to yourself the impact this could have on Andy Kennedy's already proven successful recruiting. We have become competitive with other SEC Western Division schools in terms of the caliber of athletes we have been able to bring in with coach Kennedy at the helm; this can only get better if the prospects of NBA careers for Ole Miss roundballers becomes legitimized.
The impact a win over a top-10 Big East team could have on the rest of our schedule, can also not be understated. Let's say Kennedy's lineup were to stroll into SEC play at 15-1 (assuming wins over Jacksonville State and UCF--arrogant, yes, but there's a point to be made dammit), boasting wins over two nationally ranked teams, with a huge opening matchup against Western Division co-favorites and arch rivals Mississippi State in Oxford. Such momentum would be able to conceivably keep the Rebels from performing anywhere from "respectable" to "very, very well" in conference play.
Oh, but you posit that we could somehow perform worse than "respectable" in conference play, don't you? "We are Ole Miss," right? Consider this: over the past three seasons, Andy Kennedy has only coached six SEC losses in the Tad Pad. For the worst basketball arena in the conference, Tad Smith Coliseum has proven to be a very difficult place to steal a win over the past few seasons. Most of this has to do with the improvement of the players on the court, and a lot of it can be attributed to coach Kennedy himself; but one would be remiss to completely ignore the impact a good crowd can have in Ole Miss' cozy home confines. We have lamented our lackluster crowds nearly ad nauseum here, but we all know that, if Ole Miss were to enter conference play on a fiery streak, the Tad Pad would be a difficult place to even breathe, let alone watch a basketball game. Anyone who was a part of the crowd when Ole Miss defeated a then-ranked Alabama team in 2007 or took the lead in the SEC West against LSU a few weeks later can surely vouch for the excitement AK's basketball teams can generate.
In short, a win tomorrow night will markedly improve our program. It could lead to more wins, should lead to even greater success recruiting, and would definitely lead to the increased fan support our program will need to be a legitimate player in the Southeastern Conference.
I know we have placed a lot on tomorrow night. But, there is reason for this. This is basically a "make-or-break" game for our season and, vicariously, our program--without the "break." I guess we could call it a "make-or-not-make" game. Lose tomorrow, and Rebel basketball under Andy Kennedy will continue to be what it is today--a collection of athletic players scratching and clawing for NCAA tourney bids. Win, and the payout would likely be felt impacting our program for quite a while.
So... no pressure, Rebels!