There's 43 seconds left as Derrick Millinghaus walks the ball over the half-court line in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. Its March 15, and the Ole Miss Rebels' NCAA Tourney hopes rest on a razor's edge as they trail the Missouri Tigers 62-59 late in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
At the 36.6 mark Millinghaus passes to Murphy Holloway at the top of the key, then rotates to a spot just outside the 3-point line on the right-hand side of the court. The freshman point guard, whose 13.9 minutes per game are almost as diminutive as his 5'9 frame, had come out of nowhere to score six straight points and help turn what had been a ten point Rebel deficit with just under eight minutes to play into a tie game, but a three from Mizzou's Phil Pressey has suddenly swung the momentum. Holloway hands the ball off to Marshall Henderson. Holloway's defender, wary of the SEC's shot-happy leading scorer, switches to Henderson, who, despite now being double-teamed, launches into one of his "this-is-a-terrible-shot-but-I-don't-give-a-damn" fadeaway threes. At the height of his jumper at 33.9 seconds, however, Henderson reconsiders his cavalier approach and makes a mid-air feed back to Murph, left open just outside the paint by the double team. As Missouri's defense frantically rotates to counter the new threat, Holloway swings the ball out to Millinghaus, now wide open at his spot just beyond the arc. Millinghaus pauses for nine tenths of second, just enough time to compose himself for a shot but not long enough to consider the far-reaching impact his attempt will have on the future of the Ole Miss basketball program. With 31.4 seconds remaining, the shot goes up.
Here at the Cup, we've had a good deal of fun imagining up alternate realities for the Rebel basketball team. But the divergent paths potentially produced by Millinghaus's fateful three in Nashville are much more real and as equally converse as Andy and Randy's fictional parallel universes. The chain of events possibly initiated by either a make or a miss could have led the Rebels down very different roads.
We all know how it actually went down: Millinghaus's shot found the bottom of the net to tie the game, and after an inexplicable throw away on the resulting Mizzou inbounds pass, the Rebels regained possession with the shot clock turned off. Millinghaus would cap his stellar 11-point second half performance with a floater in the lane with 1.1 remaining to give Ole Miss the win, and spurred by the comeback victory, the Rebels would go on to defeat first Vanderbilt, then Florida en route to their first conference championship in 32 years. They would earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002, and as a 12-seed upset the 5-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in the first round before coming up one shot shy of La Salle in the second. For two weeks Ole Miss would become the talk of the basketball world as Marshall Madness swept over America, even capturing the attention of roundball royalty like King James and Sir Charles. Andy Kennedy, having finally exorcised his big game demons with the first Big Dance berth of his seven year career, would be rewarded with a raise and a four-year contract extension
For the sake of examination, though, let's imagine that Millinghaus's 3-pointer doesn't fall. Instead, it rims out, and a Missouri team that had out-rebounded the Rebels by ten up until that point grabs the board. The Tigers make their free throws down the stretch and go on to win the game. Though ESPN's Joe Lunardi had announced just moments before the game's end that Ole Miss would remain one of the last four in win or lose, its hard to imagine that, after a 6-6 finish that included losses to the SEC's two last place teams, the Rebels could have held that spot until Selection Sunday. The loss to Missouri eventually drops them out of the field of 68 and they miss the tournament for an 11th straight year. Already known for his tendency to flirt with tournament eligibility, Kennedy completes his most seductive caper to date by jumping out to the best start in program history before nosediving to crash just one game short. Finally fed up, an exasperated fan base forces the athletic department's hand. Andy Kennedy is fired.
Whatever coach that would have been hired to replace Kennedy would face an uphill battle in rejuvenating Ole Miss basketball. One must look no farther than Starkville to see how a coaching turnover can upset a stable program. A poor start in the new coach's first year or two would undoubtedly rile up those fans who believed Kennedy should have been retained, causing a rift in a notably divisive fan base. A slow start and low fan morale would certainly result in reduced donations and may have postponed construction on the new arena, which Ross Bjork recently described as still in the early planning phase. The entire basketball program could have potentially been set back by years.
That's all speculation, of course. Maybe a coaching change would have been better for the program in the long run. Maybe Kennedy would have even managed to keep his job for another season. Hell, for all we know, with a break here and a Henderson prayer there, Ole Miss would have still beaten Missouri that night in Nashville and everything would have turned out the same.
On the other hand, it is far too early to exalt the Rebels' late season run as a program-shifting milestone. The unprecedented period of energy and attention it has sparked, has, in conjunction with the approaching construction of the new arena, given Kennedy a spectacular platform on which to build up his program, but it is to be seen whether he will be able to capitalize on the momentum. It is entirely possible that the calls for his firing are louder than ever this time two years from now.
What we do know, however, is that with 29.8 seconds remaining Millinghaus's shot dropped through the cylinder. In what could be deemed a crossroads moment for Rebel basketball, the rather short figure of the jump shooting point guard may yet cast a very long shadow.