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Rebels Need to Regain Their Swagger

(Photo from OleMissMBB on X)

  • There will be meaningful March basketball for Mississippi State. That’s in doubt for Ole Miss.

The idea of Ole Miss basketball in March Madness was heartwarming for Rebels fans for a couple of months of this season.

It does happen from time to time, but the inability to more often find the good side of the bracket on Selection Sunday has been the undoing of multiple modern day Ole Miss coaches.

New coach Chris Beard lit a fire under humble expectations when the Rebels went 13-0 in the non-conference and had some nice SEC wins in the first half of the season.

Now with just four games left in the regular season the Rebels (19-8, 6-8 SEC) have lost five of their last six. Saturday’s 72-59 home loss against No. 20 South Carolina was not as close as it sounds and dropped the Rebels to No. 75 in the NCAA Net Rankings.

They’ve done little lately to justify much hope for an upset Wednesday night against No. 14 Alabama, likely to be refocused after having its clock cleaned at Kentucky on Saturday. The Crimson Tide (19-8, 11-3 SEC) comes in as the SEC co-leaders.

If it appears I don’t have much confidence in the Rebels’ chances against Alabama that’s true. The important thing is what the Rebels think about their chances and whether their confidence has suffered in this tough stretch.

“That’s a question for the players. I don’t want to speak for those guys,” Beard said in the South Carolina aftermath.

Asking the players was rather difficult since none made it to postgame interviews.

You didn’t need confirmation from Ole Miss players after wins at Texas A&M and at home against rival Mississippi State at the tail end of January. You could see the confidence that comes from big stops and big shots.

Jaylen Murray’s NBA 3-pointer gave the Rebels a nifty road win. They shot well at home against the Bulldogs and with the game on the line in the final seconds forced State’s Cameron Matthews to tie it at the free throw line where he shoots 56.2%.

Matthews and his mates hit a groove soon after that loss and had won five straight before Tuesday’s 91-89 home loss to No. 16 Kentucky.

Ole Miss was a Humphrey Coliseum victim on Feb. 21, and the Bulldogs, after a 20-point win at LSU on and the Kentucky game, carry an NCAA Net Ranking of 30 into Saturday afternoon’s visit to No. 11 Auburn.

A 64-58 home win over Auburn on Jan. 27 has helped fuel State’s resume.

Tuesday, though, was a big one to let get away, especially after a 13-point second-half lead. A win would have vaulted the Bulldogs past the 8-9 line where the winner faces the No. 1 seed.

For all of its recent momentum, State faces a tough road to the regular season finish with trips to Auburn and Texas A&M before closing with South Carolina at home.

There will be meaningful March basketball for Mississippi State.

For a time, the Rebels were making plays that made March Madness hopes real. Beard, like MSU coach Chris Jans, expects to be in the NCAA Tournament this time of year.

He inherited a program that won just three SEC games a year ago, but change doesn’t usually happen when things are going well.

The transfer portal can make for a quick fix, and this team is far ahead of where it was last year.

Senior guard Matthew Murrell is playing the best ball of his career, but he played too little of it Saturday when he went to the bench with two fouls less than 4 minutes in against the Gamecocks.

“Our team’s not set up for Matt to play half the game,” Beard said.

It’s also not set up for a quick exit from Allen Flanigan who was ejected after a flagrant foul with 16:53 remaining. He had 11 points and three rebounds at the time.

The Rebels were out of sync the whole day. Typically, when that happens it’s because the other guys are playing stout defense.

Wednesday night will be a different style, a game that will emphasize offense more. Alabama will be harder to defend, but Ole Miss, the second-leading 3-point shooting team in the SEC before South Carolina figured in, will get some open looks.

Will the Rebels be confident enough to knock them down?

“You earn the right to be confident,” Beard said. “We put a lot of work into the summer, a lot of work into practice, hours and hours in the gym. There are some teams this time of year that are trying to hold on. There are other teams that are playing their best basketball.”

It appears right now that Ole Miss is the former, not the latter.

The challenge for Beard and his staff is to help the Rebels regain their swagger.

Players’ self-confidence in most sports is a moving target, and when it’s found it’s also subject to quick change.

One good starting point as the Rebels welcome the Crimson Tide is that Beard believes in his players even if their belief might be a little wobbly.

“I feel a lot of confidence in those players that we’re putting in the game. I think the story for this team is yet to be written,” he said.

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