Ole Miss Men's Basketball Season Outlook
Go ahead. Tell Andy Kennedy his Ole Miss basketball team will finish last in the SEC. He can handle it. He was dealt that same verdict a year ago and managed just fine.
When Kennedy was named the Rebels’ 20th head coach in March 2006, he inherited a program that had struggled through four straight losing seasons. Preseason prediction for year one? Cellar.
Utilizing basically the same cast that had turned in a 14-16 mark the prior year, Kennedy reversed the trend and inspired a team of overachievers to the best season in six years. Final result? SEC Western Division title.
“I think it was a good first step,” said Kennedy, who was named SEC Coach of the Year. “Anytime you take on a new situation you really don’t know what to expect. I thought the year was based on growth, and I was really pleased to see our seniors have an opportunity to experience some success before their careers here ended.
“I also hope that it showed what we are capable of doing if we take the right approach.”
With a 21-13 record, the team posted its most victories since 2001 and returned to postseason play for the first time in five seasons. Ole Miss also reestablished its home court advantage with a school-record 16 wins and sell-out crowds in SEC play.
Senior guards Todd Abernethy, Clarence Sanders and Bam Doyne all enjoyed breakout years. Abernethy was the league leader in assists per game and assist/turnover ratio, while Sanders and Doyne were both among the top 10 in scoring.
That trio accounted for 57 percent of the team’s scoring and departs leaving no returning starters in the backcourt. With critics stressing that factor, early projections have the Rebels at the bottom of the conference once again.
“It’s funny how things work,” Kennedy said. “When I got the job, I was confronted by a lot of different people that said we don’t know if you have the players capable of competing in the SEC.’ Then after we win the West, the same people start talking about how are you going to replace those guys?”
Stepping is an army of talented, athletic newcomers that ranks among the top 10 recruiting classes in college basketball. Throw in a veteran group in the frontcourt and Kennedy feels the elements are in place for another championship run.
“We are going to miss the experience in our backcourt, but we have certainly helped ourselves in a number of areas,” said Kennedy. “Now, how all the pieces fit in the puzzle remains to be seen, but we’re very excited to get started.”
Headlining the list of returnees is senior center Dwayne Curtis. Since transferring from Auburn after his freshman year, Curtis has averaged 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds and earned All-SEC honors in 2006.
Curtis’ starting partner on the blocks a year ago was JUCO transfer Kenny Williams. The former Auburn football signee emerged as a beast on the court by season’s end, averaging 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds during the postseason.
Fourth-year power forward Jermey Parnell enjoyed perhaps the best offseason of any Rebel and rounds out a formidable set of big men.
“It’s really a complete reversal. We had three senior guards last year, and we’ll have three senior frontcourt kids this year,” Kennedy said.” All three will play important roles.”
Leadership will also come from a pair of reserve guards and a key transfer who redshirted last season.
“We have a player who sat out that I don’t really consider a newcomer in David Huertas, who has some natural leadership ability,” said Kennedy. “Another guy we’ll be counting on for leadership is Brian Smith. He helped us in a number of areas last year. He’s the only guard on our team that has been here four years, and we are looking for him to expand his role. Eniel Polynice garnered some valuable minutes as a freshman and has an excellent opportunity to take the next step in his evolution this year.”
Along with a pair of redshirts, seven brand new faces join the mix, with several being pressed into immediate duty. Top-100 prospects Malcolm White, a 6-foot-9 forward, and Zach Graham, a 6-foot-5 wing, highlight an incoming class with five freshmen and two junior college standouts. The group was tabbed the No. 9 recruiting class in the nation by Hoop Scoop, which does not include major college transfers in its ranking but said Ole Miss would be in the top five if Huertas were factored in the equation.
How quickly all these future stars transition to the SEC level could determine how much further Kennedy’s second Rebel squad advances toward the ultimate objective.
“My goal is to win a national championship. I think if you aren’t working daily to compete and put yourself in a position to win a national championship in this league, you are wasting your time,” he said. “So internally we have some very, very high goals. We understand that will not happen overnight. We understand that we have to continue taking steps in the right direction, and I think that with this year’s team, we will continue to do so.”
Big shoes need to be filled in the backcourt as three productive senior guards must be replaced. Todd Abernethy, Clarence Sanders and Bam Doyne provided the bulk of the Ole Miss scoring and leadership in 2006-07.
A three-year Team Captain, Abernethy was a fixture as the Rebel floor leader from the second he stepped on campus and was arguably the SEC’s top point guard a year ago.
The leading candidates to grab the reins as primary ballhandler are a pair of true freshmen in Chris Warren and Trevor Gaskins.
Warren is a 5-foot-10 speedster who proved to be an all-around leader in his prep career. The Orlando native directed Dr. Phillips to the Florida 6A state title for the first time ever and holds school records in virtually every statistical category.
“Chris is a jet with the ball,” said Kennedy. “He can score and create opportunities with his ball speed. He is good perimeter shooter with 3-point range. He is certainly going to have an opportunity, and I think he has the skill set to be an effective player from day one.”
At 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, Gaskins provides a physical presence at the point. He too was a 20-point scorer in high school, and the Georgia native opted for Ole Miss over Tennessee and Florida State.
“Trevor is a power guard, a monster athlete and an exceptional passer,” Kennedy said. “His physical attributes are going to give him a chance to play early. Despite his size and strength, he's still young, so he's got a lot of growing to do both literally and figuratively.”
Helping facilitate the post-Abernethy era is fourth-year Rebel Brian Smith. The senior and son of Tubby Smith has provided key minutes and some big-game dramatics during his teunure in the Red and Blue.
“We all know what we are going to get out of Smity,” said Kennedy. “He had some huge minutes for us last year and now becomes the sole upperclassman in our backcourt. We're going to ask him to take that next step in helping us in a number of ways, which we think he is capable of doing.”
Sanders and Doyne supplied an effective one-two scoring punch from the Ole Miss wings last year, averaging 16.1 and 14.9 points, respectively.
Sophomore transfer David Huertas sparred with that duo in practice everyday. The previous year, the Puerto Rico native battled with Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer for playing time as a member of Florida’s 2006 national champion squad.
The former Florida High School Player of the Year has anxiously awaited his opportunity.
“David is a very competitive kid that has experienced success at a high level,” Kennedy said. “Although he will be new to the fans of Ole Miss, we as a staff have a pretty good understanding of what we are going to get out of him, and we think he will be a versatile scorer with a good basketball IQ. He is certainly capable of making an immediate impact.”
Another 6-foot-5 former Florida prep standout, Eniel Polynice saw action in every game with eight starts last year and is vying to be a full-time starting wing as a sophomore. Polynice posted four double-figure scoring games and helped energize several comeback rallies.
“EP played valuable minutes, and he certainly had games where his presence was key to our success,” said Kennedy. “He's starting to understand the commitment level that it takes to be successful in the SEC. He must continue to improve on his outside shooting, but his ability to see the floor is as good as anyone on our team.”
Stout competition for a starting role will come from freshman Zach Graham, who was tabbed the No. 89 recruit in this year’s incoming class. The 6-foot-5, 220 pounder was a do-everything star athlete at Georgia’s Peachtree Ridge High School, where he holds nearly every basketball and football quarterback record.
“Zach Graham is a winner,” said Kennedy. “His strength, athleticism, ability to pass, maturity level and understanding of the game really separate him. We were fortunate to get him in the program. He's going to have an opportunity from the start to compete for starting minutes.”
Mississippi JUCO Player of the Year Wesley Jones and returning sophomore Rodney Jones provide further depth on the wings. Will Poole, Kiah Brown and Patrick Spach also help strengthen the backcourt.
Ole Miss enjoys a wealth of experience and some serious upside in the frontcourt. Three seniors help make the blocks an area of strength for the Rebels.
Despite missing the first eight games of 2006-07, Dwayne Curtis still amassed the most rebounds on the team and notched nine double-doubles, giving him 16 over his two seasons in Oxford. The 6-foot-8, 262-pounder was an all-conference honoree as a sophomore and is among the most seasoned big men in the SEC.
“He's got great hands and a good feel,” said Kennedy “He's gotten 12 (points) and 8 (rebounds) for the last couple years, so we hope that he is ready to take that next step.
“This summer, he has done the best job of keeping his weight down, where he can play longer and be more effective. He understands that he needs to be able to change directions a little quicker for the way we want to play.”
Kennedy’s first signee as Ole Miss mentor, Kenny Williams started 22 games and topped the club in field goal percentage and blocked shots. After a strong finish, Williams averaged 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.
“Of all our newcomers last year, Kenny Williams probably had the greatest impact, and at the end of the season, became much more consistent, because I think he realized the level at which he had to play in order to be successful,” Kennedy said. “He's an energy guy. He has strength and athleticism and was an effective scorer when he got the ball in the areas in which he was the most comfortable.
“We hope he is ready to elevate his game and have the same type transformation between his first and second year that Clarence Sanders had.”
Athletic forward Jermey Parnell has exhibited flashes of dominance over his three seasons, but long hours of conditioning in the spring and summer could have the 6-foot-8, 242-pounder poised for a breakout year.
“I've been really impressed with Jermey Parnell and the way in which he approached this offseason,” said Kennedy. “He is truly embracing the sense of urgency you want all seniors to have. We hope now in his last season he's ready to turn that potential into productivity.”
These seniors will be fending off some talented youngsters for minutes. JUCO forward Terrence Watson comes in prepared for immediate battle.
The versatile forward from Michigan led his team to a national championship, earning All-America and conference Defensive Player of the Year accolades.
“With a 7-foot-2 wing span, Terrence is extremely long and has the ability to guard all five positions,” Kennedy said. “He has the ball skills to initiate the break, and we're going to give him the freedom to rebound and push it upcourt. We'll run some of our offense through him as well.
“He's a monster athlete, a high energy guy and a winner. We think all those things are going to help him make an immediate impact.”
Malcolm White is one of the most highly touted signees in school history, rated as the nation's No. 64 recruit in the 2008 class before qualifying a year sooner. The 6-foot-9 Louisiana native averaged 15 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks on Genesis One’s national prep school championship runner-up team.
Include 6-foot-10 Kevin Cantinol and the Rebels have a pair of freshmen forwards waiting in the wings. Hailing from the French West Indies, Cantinol guided Florida’s Calvary Christian High School to its first Final Four appearance, garnering All-State honors.
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