Rebels begin NIT

Published 4:28 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2011

This was supposed to be the breakout season for seniors Chris Warren and Zach Graham.

The time when the two veterans would finally put aside past disappointments and lead Mississippi to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.

But now it’s March and the Rebels are once again NIT-bound.

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It would be easy for Warren and Graham to pout, thanks to the realization that neither will ever play in an NCAA Tournament. But Graham said he won’t give into that temptation.

“I’m over it,” said Graham, a 6-foot-6 senior who is 19th on the Rebels’ career scoring list with 1,257 points. “We have to move to the next thing. We’re lucky enough to have something to move forward to with the California game. That’s all I’m looking forward to right now.”

Ole Miss (20-13), which earned a No. 5 seed in the 32-team NIT field, will travel to face No. 4 California (17-14) on Wednesday in Berkeley, Calif.

Though disappointed, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said his team is grateful. Fourteen teams earned automatic bids to the NIT after winning their regular-season conference championship, leaving only 18 at-large selections.

Considering the Rebels are a No. 5 seed, they were likely one of the last teams selected for the field.

“Any time you get the opportunity to participate in the postseason you embrace it and play as long as they let you play,” Kennedy said.

Another game also means Warren will likely hit a historic milestone: The 5-foot-10 point guard needs just two points to become the school’s third member of the 2,000-point club despite missing 20 games during his sophomore year after an ACL tear.

He would also be just the fourth player in SEC history with 2,000 career points and 400 assists — joining LSU’s Pete Maravich, Tennessee’s Allan Houston and Georgia’s Litterial Green.

Never a big talker, Warren downplayed his accomplishments.

“It means I’ve had a pretty good career here and I did a little scoring when I was here,” Warren said.

Kennedy was much more complimentary.

“I think we all know Chris is a good player and we all see him do things that defy logic at time, but when you look at his numbers on paper, they are incredible,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s job status had been uncertain in recent weeks after the Rebels’ NCAA hopes were doomed by a 1-5 start to conference play. But after the Rebels lost to Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, athletic director Pete Boone told several media outlets that he expected Kennedy back for a sixth season.

Kennedy has won at least 20 games in four of five seasons, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament despite close calls in 2008 and 2010. In both those seasons, the Rebels advanced to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden before losing to Ohio State in 2008 and Dayton in 2010.

Now he’s trying to get the Rebels ready for another run.

“Excited may not be the right word, but we certainly don’t want to take this opportunity for granted,” Kennedy said. “Two-thirds of the teams in the country aren’t playing.”