There the Rebels were, ranked in both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches’ polls, with 17 wins to only two losses and a perfect 6-0 record in the Southeastern Conference.
The stage was set: a nationally-televised contest against Kentucky at home. They could prove their worth; stamp their place among the SEC elite. Marshall Henderson had become a household name. The NCAA tournament was well within sight.
Boom. A loss, and everything changed.
Now having lost four of its last five games, Ole Miss welcomes Georgia, the Rebels clinging desperately to their NCAA tournament hopes.
There was no media opportunity on Thursday or Friday, the days following the Rebels’ latest setback - a 69-67 loss at Texas A&M. And while the loss wasn’t crippling (Ole Miss dropped just one spot in the RPI, to No. 48), it continued the frustrations of a promising season quickly spiraling downward.
“We’re in the grind of college basketball,” head coach Andy Kennedy said earlier this week, his words still poignant days later. “It doesn’t just affect Ole Miss, it affects everybody. These next two or three weeks, you’re in a grind. The games come quick and you kind of get into this malaise of one foot in front of the other. You’ve got to be able to handle the grind in order to get to the end of February.
“Now you start seeing March.”
But will Ole Miss be dancing in March? That’s the question with seven games remaining, a cloud of doubt looming overhead.
Yes, Ole Miss is off to its best start, 18-6 (7-4 SEC), after 24 games since the 2000-01 season. Still, it is how the Rebels have gotten here that has fans on edge. Ole Miss hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament in a decade.
In his latest bracketology, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Ole Miss as a No. 10 seed playing No. 7 Creighton in Auburn Hills. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com has the Rebels as a No. 9 seed, playing North Carolina State, in Auburn Hills.
So, despite its loss at Texas A&M, against an RPI top-100 team with a return game at home coming up, Ole Miss is a tournament team. But the Rebels have to stack wins, possibly even six of their last seven, to stay there.
“We’ve got to get back to playing the way that we have shown capable in order for us to be successful,” Kennedy said, “and that’s rebound, that’s defend, that’s get the shots to the right people at the right spots.”
Ole Miss has struggled defensively as of late, having given up, on average, 81.4 points per game over its last five games. In its 6-0 start to the conference schedule, Ole Miss gave up just 63.8 points per game.
Some of the blame for the Rebels’ defensive woes can be attributed to transition defense - or lack thereof - and their struggles in rebounding, according to Kennedy.
“In our losses, it’s been bad,” Kennedy said. “We haven’t rebounded the ball very well, our first-shot defense hasn’t been as good as it needs to be, couple of quick shots leads to transition opportunities.
“Going into the Kentucky game, we were leading the SEC in transition efficiency, meaning we give up less points in transition than anyone in the league. (Kentucky) came in and really hurt us in transition.”
The Rebels do rank 21st in the country in 3-point field goal percentage defense, but against Texas A&M, Ole Miss allowed the Aggies to shoot 50 percent (8 of 16) from 3, including 7 of 10 for Elston Turner, Jr., who finished the game with 37 of his team’s 69 points.
Ole Miss is sixth in the SEC and 68th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (40.6 percent) and second in the league and 14th in the nation in blocks. The Rebels are second in the league in forcing turnovers, forcing an average 16.0 turnovers per game.
Nick Williams & Martavious Newby
“Every game from this point on is important,” senior guard Nick Williams said earlier this week. “We’ve just got to be us. We’ve got to do what we do.”
Georgia, at a glance:
* Saturday’s game is the 107th meeting between Ole Miss and Georgia, with Georgia holding a 66-40 lead in the series. Ole Miss has won six of the last nine games, but Georgia won the last meeting in Oxford, 98-76, in 2011. The Rebels lead 25-21 in games in Oxford, and have won three of the last four matchups.
* The Bulldogs enter the game with an RPI ranked No. 119 in the nation. Georgia saw its five-game SEC winning streak snapped against Alabama on Tuesday. Its five-game winning streak included victories over Texas A&M twice, Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee.
* Sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leads the Bulldogs this season, averaging 17.7 points per game, which ranks third in the league. He also paces Georgia with 6.4 rebounds per game. He’s the only Bulldog in double-digit points.