The SEC men's basketball season is under way. One game in, there's already a theme:
Escape from the NIT.
The SEC has expanded from 12 to 14 teams this winter but don't look for the league to have an expanded presence when the NCAA tournament bracket is unveiled in just over two months.
Florida is a cinch. Kentucky, the defending champion (minus virtually all its defending champions), will get there. Newcomer Missouri appears to have the right stuff.
Then it's a scrum for the fourth bid — if there is to be a fourth bid in what is clearly a down year.
Ole Miss raised its hand Wednesday night. The Rebels emphatically passed their first test of the SEC season.
Tennessee just as emphatically failed its own.
Getting run out of their own building, 92-74, was hardly the start to conference play the Vols envisioned.
"We didn't expect this to happen,'' said sophomore Jarnell Stokes. "We go into every game expecting to win and that's not an exaggeration.''
No exaggeration, the Vols have surrendered 177 points in the past two games.
Ole Miss didn't shoot lights out like Memphis did here five nights earlier, but, like Memphis, the Rebels did make UT's defense look a step slow.
That partly explained the free-throw disparity that kept the Vols behind the 8-ball from the early minutes on. Field goals were a wash, 25 each. The Rebels shot 44 free throws to UT's 26.
There's a lot of hay to get in the barn yet, but coach Andy Kennedy and his team (12-2) had every reason to celebrate.
Ole Miss holds the longest NCAA tournament drought in the SEC, dating to 2002.
They could, on the other hand, write a book on the NIT, having partaken of college basketball's consolation prize five times in Kennedy's six seasons.
Tennessee, by the way, is partly to blame. The Rebels hadn't won in Knoxville since 1991, a streak covering 12 games over 22 years.
But that's all over now. Tennessee is the team with a losing streak to lug along as it heads to Alabama on Saturday.
"Great job by Ole Miss,'' conceded UT coach Cuonzo Martin.
Great job by many of the same Rebels who eliminated the Vols from the SEC tournament last March in New Orleans — and in the process doomed UT to the NIT. Hasn't Murphy Holloway been playing at Ole Miss since Archie Manning was flinging passes?
But there was one new twist. Kennedy went out and recruited the junior college player of the year. Marshall Henderson torched the Vols for 32 points.
The only Tennessee newcomer who contributed — in a positive way — was Derek Reese, with seven points.
Speaking of Reese, an image captured in the final seconds, long after most of the crowd of 17,057 had vacated, was telling.
Ole Miss senior Reginald Buckner rose up over Reese, the freshman playing in his second game, and ferociously dunked an offensive rebound, drawing a Reese foul in the bargain for the last of those 44 free throws.
The Rebels, tougher, more aggressive and in some cases more experienced, looked like a team that, come March, wouldn't be out of place in a first-round NCAA tournament game somewhere.
The Vols? They looked like the team we saw last March, losing an NIT game in this same building.