March 8, 2011 10:06:00 AM
JACKSON -- To make its first NCAA tournament since 2002, Mississippi must win four games in four days in the Southeastern Conference Tournament that begins Thursday in Atlanta.
A daunting task -- one Rebels coach Andy Kennedy hasn''t really even considered.
"It''s just about survival. One at a time," Kennedy said. "I don''t think it would be in anyone''s best interest to worry about the big picture. Let''s win one game. Let''s get to Friday. That''s where our philosophy will be."
Ole Miss (19-12, 7-9 SEC), the No. 3 seed in the Western Division, will face No. 6 Eastern Division seed South Carolina (14-15, 5-11) at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Dome. The Rebels lost to the Gamecocks 79-73 on Feb. 22 in Columbia, S.C., despite a career-high 33 points from guard Chris Warren.
Kennedy said South Carolina poses matchup problems, but he''s pleased that the game should be fresh in his team''s mind.
"We''ll have an understanding of what they are and what they do," Kennedy said. "Now it''s a matter of us making a few adjustments and hopefully being excited about being in the SEC tournament."
Without a miracle run through the SEC tournament, it''s almost certain Ole Miss will be headed for a fourth trip to the National Invitation Tournament in five seasons. But Warren, a senior who has scored 1,958 career points, craves a chance to finally make the NCAA tournament.
The Rebels have the longest current NCAA tournament drought in the SEC.
"We''ve got one more chance to get this right," Warren said. "It''s up to me to make sure we''re ready."
Warren would be an easy choice for the most important player on the Rebels. He''s averaging 18.9 points, nearly four assists and also leads the nation with a 93.5 percent free-throw shooting percentage.
But the 5-foot-10 point guard said it''s much more crucial that the team gets production out of its inconsistent front line -- especially forwards Reggie Buckner and Terrance Henry.
Buckner''s inconsistency has been the most maddening. The 6-foot-8 sophomore is one of the conference''s elite defensive players, averaging more than three blocks per game. But his wild swings in production have kept the Rebels from any sort of rhythm.
An example: On March 2 against Auburn, Buckner produced no points, no rebounds and no blocks in six minutes before fouling out. Ole Miss blew a 20-point lead and lost 76-73.
Then just three days later against Arkansas, Buckner was spectacular with nine points, eight rebounds, and seven blocked shots as Ole Miss beat Arkansas 84-74.
"We need him," Kennedy said. "Reggie and Terrance have to play well. What''s that mean? Probably a combination of 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots. That shows we''re being productive. All of our core players have to play well -- not just Chris."
Warren said he''s been trying to get Buckner involved in the game during the first few offensive possessions so he gains confidence. Buckner''s post moves are limited, but he''s shooting nearly 61 percent from the field because he gets plenty of dunks and usually takes high-percentage shots.
"When he starts well, he''s usually good the entire night," Warren said. "When he''s on, he does a lot of good things for us that we need to win games."