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In the SEC basketball renaissance, Ole Miss basketball was getting left behind

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Andy Kennedy didn’t have enough equity saved up to survive a season like this.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss and Andy Kennedy are parting ways after the 2017-18 basketball season.

It’s not entirely clear if Andy Kennedy’s decision to resign his post was entirely his own or if this was a “you can resign or we can fire you, take your pick” situation, but the end result is the same: Kennedy will not be coaching the Ole Miss basketball team after this season.

Kennedy was the school’s winningest basketball coach (though that said a lot more about Ole Miss’s basketball history than it did about Kennedy), but there were signs that the school was looking to move on from the coach even before his twelfth season. Ole Miss refused to give Kennedy a contract extension last year and last summer, the Rebels lost a pair of signees in Jamarko Pickett and Parker Stewart.

I thought going into this season that this might be Andy Kennedy’s most talented team ever, but the Rebels surprisingly got off to a slow start, opening the season 5-5 with home losses to South Dakota State and Illinois State. On Saturday, the Rebels lost their fifth game in a row, an 82-66 decision to LSU that dropped them to 4-8 in the SEC and 11-14 overall.

This might not have even been Kennedy’s worst team at Ole Miss.

If you look at KenPom, Andy Kennedy has had two teams worse than this one. This year’s team is ranked 88th in KenPom; his 2008-09 team finished ranked 92nd, while the Rebels’ 2011-12 team ranked 95th.

Of course, those teams both finished with winning records, and the 2012 team actually won 20 games and made the NIT. This team won’t, and that might make Kennedy the first casualty of the SEC’s newfound renaissance on the hardwood. Ole Miss’s 2011-12 team wasn’t that good, but there were five teams in the SEC that were actually worse than that.

But this year, being the 88th-best team in the country made Ole Miss the second-worst team in the SEC, ahead of only South Carolina, and one spot behind a Vanderbilt team that’s 9-16 this season. At the end of the day, Kennedy’s last Ole Miss team was not really any worse than what he’s been fielding for most of the previous eleven years; the Rebels simply got passed along the way by programs like Auburn, Mississippi State, and Alabama.

What’s more, Kennedy couldn’t point to improvements on the recruiting trail, either. Ole Miss’s 2018 recruiting class currently ranks 73rd nationally in the 247 Sports composite, with the highest-rated recruit in the class ranked 177th nationally.

Kennedy’s best years at Ole Miss didn’t give him enough equity to survive this.

South Carolina is actually worse than Ole Miss this season if you go by KenPom; the Gamecocks currently rank 92nd and have a matching 4-8 SEC record with a 13-12 overall record. But Frank Martin’s job is not in any trouble — in large part because he’s just a year removed from taking South Carolina to the Final Four for the first time in school history.

There’s a lot to be said for consistency. Prior to this season, Andy Kennedy had never had a losing season as Ole Miss’s head coach, and under Kennedy the Rebels never finished below .500 in SEC play, and his overall record in conference play is still over .500 (102-96.)

But the upside was never there. Kennedy made the NCAA Tournament just twice in 12 seasons, and one of those saw the Rebels get a 12-seed after winning the SEC Tournament — an indication that they likely would not have made the tournament if not for winning the SEC’s automatic bid. In the other appearance, they just barely snuck in and played in Dayton. And their last NCAA Tournament appearance came in 2015.

At a school like Ole Miss, consistently finishing around .500 and making the NIT while sprinkling in a NCAA Tournament appearance every few years can keep you employed for a long time. The problem with this sort of resume, though, is that when things turn south, the coach can find himself unemployed in a hurry. Andy Kennedy simply didn’t have enough equity to keep his job after a season like this.

This is still a dangerous move for Ole Miss, though.

While you could certainly argue that the Andy Kennedy era had gotten stale, Ole Miss can certainly do a lot worse than a coach who consistently delivered competitive teams for a decade — and, in fact, Ole Miss did do a lot worse than that for most of the preceding, oh, seven decades. Like I said above, Kennedy’s status as Ole Miss’s winningest all-time coach was a much bigger reflection on Ole Miss than on Kennedy.

The program’s downturn this season might well have become permanent if Kennedy had been allowed to stay, just like Cliff Ellis’s 14-14 season at Auburn in 2003-04 might well have been the new normal for that program. And yet, observers spent most of the decade after Ellis’s termination wondering why in the hell Auburn got rid of him.

That will happen if Ole Miss doesn’t nail the replacement hire. While Ole Miss was certainly justified in wanting a change of direction, this is the kind of move that will be second-guessed if Kennedy’s replacement does worse than he did.