The scene is Destin, Florida — a once quiet fishing community now teeming with retirees from all reaches of the United States and young families escaping middle class life for a week.
What better way to start the Christmas season than with a college basketball tournament in a coastal city in the contiguous US? Well, probably like the Bahamas or Virgin Islands as a location, Maui would also be nice!
The Emerald Coast Classic is a little bit of an Island of Misfit Toys in the early season landscape of college basketball tournaments. Cincinnati and Baylor should’ve been the headliners in theory, but neither program is ranked in the top 25. Baylor also lost its first game to something called Texas Southern?
So maybe the field isn’t as strong as we would have liked and the boost to the Rebels strength of schedule may end up being relatively marginal.
BUT it also means this is a solid tournament atmosphere for our young team to come together and add some kind of Florida-themed trophy to the shelf. I think the trophy is actually some fake Disney World tickets, an airbrushed t-shirt and a faded boogie board - all bronzed of course.
Technically, Ole Miss’ road to the ECC Title already began with its first game against Western Michigan, a 90-64 win, and its second game Tuesday against Nicholls State with a 20-point win in Oxford.
Here’s a breakdown of the other teams Ole Miss may face in Destin:
Season at a glance: Beat Nicholls St. 81-54; Loss to Texas Southern
A season opening loss to Texas Southern is a black mark that will not be fading any time soon for a Baylor team picked to finish anywhere from 6th to 8th in the Big XII this year. One of the good things we’ll see by playing them is what we could expect from Iowa State later in the year from a difficulty standpoint. Baylor and Iowa St. as non-conference opponents are essentially akin to adding two more conference level games for our strength of schedule. If Ole Miss can notch a win here, it will go a long way to building confidence for SEC play in January, and it could potentially help in building an resume for March. One name to keep an eye out for is Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler who sat out last season due to transfer rules. Kegler averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds per game as a freshman at MSU and was a top 50 prospect out of high school. He scored a whopping 15 points and tallied eight rebounds in Ole Miss’ 87-82 win over MSU in Starkville.
Season at a glance: Beat Western Michigan 78-52; Lost by 8 to #23 Ohio State
Ole Miss may or may not get a chance to play Cincy based on how things go on Friday, but if they do meet the Bearcats, this would be a huge opportunity for a neutral site, marquee win for first year coach Kermit Davis. The Bearcats are going to be in the mix for the American Athletic Conference title alongside Central Florida, Houston and Memphis. Cincy has the best guard in the AAC in Jarron Cumberland who is averaging more than 18 points per game in only 26 minutes per game of play. There’s very little doubt that this team if healthy will make the NCAA tournament, and we can see they held undefeated #23 Ohio State to a close 8-point margin. This is the game the Rebels want to get to in a title situation for the ECC championship, not only from a strength of schedule standpoint, but also in showing where this team is before exams and preparation for the SEC schedule.
George Mason (1-3)
Season at a glance: Losses to Penn, American and Georgia Southern
So as much as we’d like to see GMU on one day rest compared to a more impressive Cincy team, it’s really not worth it for strength of schedule reasons. GMU has a couple close losses this season, so maybe they will straighten things out later in the season and would be a good win for Ole Miss. However, it’s highly unlikely Ole Miss sees GMU in a title game situation. A loss to Baylor though means the Rebels are looking at a third place game against these guys.
If you’re going to be down in Okaloosa County, tweet @redcuprebellion over the long holiday weekend with photos of snow birds drinking daiquiris, watching basketball or maybe even hitting up an outlet mall for some bargain shopping. What’s your prediction for the ECC and Rebels finish?