But as CBS panelists rattled off team after team, reality set in. Ole Miss wasn’t going to make it in, not after falling short in the Southeastern Conference tournament. The Rebels had come on too late, winners of five out of their last six games to finish 20-13.
“I was watching and hoping we got one of those play-in games,” Henry said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t come up. It kind of hit me hard. I figured that we were on the bubble and we were going to have a pretty high seed in the NIT, so we were going to have to make the best of it.”
Ole Miss was forced to settle for the NIT … again. Henry and Co. earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament, and host No. 7 seed Illinois State (20-13) tonight at 8:30 p.m. The winner of tonight’s game will advance to play the winner of No. 3 seed Stanford and No. 6 Cleveland State.
Ole Miss is playing in its fifth NIT in six years under head coach Andy Kennedy.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to keep playing,” guard Nick Williams said. “As long as you get to be around these guys a couple of more weeks, it’s going to be fun. We just got to take advantage of it. We can’t dwell on what we didn’t do.”
Much was made of Ole Miss' late-season resurgence. The Rebels held a 15-12 record in mid-February, only to reel off five straight wins heading into a play-in game of sorts with Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament semifinals Saturday.
However, Ole Miss lost the game. And as the Selection Show proved Sunday, there was no guarantee had Ole Miss beaten Vanderbilt that it would have made the field of 68 anyway.
Kennedy said Monday the Rebels’ record against top-50 RPI teams did them in. Ole Miss was just 1-7 against those teams, including a double-overtime loss at Alabama -- a game that still haunts Kennedy.
“The void in our resume was the fact that we were 1-7 vs. the RPI top-50. Obviously, if we would’ve beaten Vanderbilt, it would have been a team that fit in that category. That was the void,” Kennedy said.
“Strength of schedule was respectable. We had a number of quality wins. The game that I have a hard time getting over is the double-overtime loss at Alabama. If somehow, some way, you could’ve made one more shot, one more play, and had a sweep of a team that was solidly in the tournament, then beating Auburn (in the SEC tournament first round) might have been enough to get you in.”
The focus for Henry, one of two seniors on the team, is for the team to play on as long as it can. Ole Miss has twice made the NIT Final Four in recent seasons. Henry has fond memories of such trips, having played in Madison Square Garden.
He wouldn’t mind going back.
“I know this isn’t what everybody wanted, but we’ve still got basketball to play,” he said. “We’re just going to try to carry over from our last few games of the season, let that carry over into the NIT. We just got to man up and accept our postseason and play.
“(New York) is great. It’s better than sitting at home, watching basketball on T.V.”
Scouting Illinois State:
Like Ole Miss, Illinois State had a case for the NCAA tournament, after making a run to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game by beating Northern Iowa and Wichita State. Wichita State is a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Redbirds are led by junior Jackie Carmichael, who averages a team-high 13.8 points per game and 9.6 rebounds. Guard Tyler Brown follows right behind with 13.1 points per game.
Tonight marks the second all-time meeting between the schools.
“They’re obviously very excited,” Kennedy said. “We realize we came short of our goal. We’ve got to get over that if we’re going to stay in this tournament very long. Illinois State is playing very good basketball. I’m sure they’re going to come in with an opportunity to play an SEC team, with a great deal of enthusiasm. We’re going to have to match that if we hope to stay alive.”
“I feel if we come out and play like we’ve been playing these last five games, we should take care of business,” Henry said. “Not taking anything away from them, but we can’t play down to our competition. We’re the SEC team. We’re in the power conference. We’re the superior team. We can’t play down to their level.”