Rebel Basketball Season Outlook
A new day has begun in Ole Miss basketball, and the face of this fresh era belongs to Andy Kennedy. The former Cincinnati mentor carries impressive coaching credentials, a proven recruiting record and an intense drive to lead the Rebels to the top of the Southeastern Conference.
A native of Louisville, Miss., Kennedy has returned home to the Magnolia State to ignite a program that has struggled through four straight losing seasons but is no stranger to success. Over the last decade, the Rebels have produced as many NCAA Tournament appearances (5) and SEC West titles (3) as any division foe.
A 6-foot-7 former UAB standout, Kennedy is leaving a situation in which he turned adversity into overwhelming positivity. Last August, Kennedy was handed the reigns of the tradition-rich Cincinnati program, less than four months before the start of the 2005-06 season. The Bearcats entered their rookie year in the BIG EAST, faced the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule and did so with only nine scholarship players.
The result was a 21-13 record and nearly an NCAA Tournament berth. The result was hundreds of “Hire Andy” signs painting the crowds of UC’s Fifth Third Arena. The result was praise of Kennedy from the biggest media and coaching names in college basketball.
“I have a great respect for him and what he's doing,” said Hall of Fame Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. “If not Cincinnati, someone is going to get a very good coach.”
That “very good coach” now points his passion and desire toward regaining the winning flare in Oxford.
“Our short-term goal is to put a competitive product on the floor that is representative of the work ethic that makes up the fabric of the University of Mississippi,” said Kennedy. “Our long-term goal is put this program in its rightful place atop the SEC, while doing so in a manner in which the Ole Miss faithful will be proud.”
During his four years as a Cincinnati assistant, Kennedy earned a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters, assembling three straight top-10 recruiting classes and a 2002 group ranked No. 5.
His first summer at Ole Miss saw the 38-year-old Kennedy and his newly-appointed staff beat out a number of major-conference schools for a talented quintet of signees.
Those five join the returning core of a Rebel unit that seemed poised for the postseason just a year ago before a late-season slump squashed their hopes.
The 2005-06 Ole Miss squad opened the season 13-3 and 3-0 in the SEC, including their first victory at Alabama in eight years. However, the Rebels would be victorious only once more in their final 14 games en route to a 14-16 record.
Four of five starters are back from last year, including Honorable Mention All-SEC center Dwayne Curtis. The 6-foot-8, 280-pound junior finished among the conference leaders in nine categories and posted six 20-point outings and seven double-doubles.
Senior guard and two-time Team Captain Todd Abernethy has played in every game the past three years and ranks in the school’s top 10 in career 3-pointers, 3-point percentage and assists.
Also returning is senior swingman and outstanding defender Bam Doyne, who discovered his offense last season. After scoring 10 or more points only three times in his first two seasons, Doyne notched double-figures 12 times with three 20-point outings last year.
“Our natural leaders are Dwayne Curtis, Todd Abernethy and Bam Doyne,” said Kennedy. “Dwayne is a young man that needs to take a leadership role because of his abilities as a player. I'm a believer that leadership is innate, and certain guys have an ability to lead. To this point, I see Todd, Bam and Dwayne, and quite possibly Justin Cerasoli, assuming those roles.”
A highly-anticipated 6-foot-5 transfer from Seton Hall, Cerasoli provides the ball-handling and shooting skills to play either backcourt spot. As a Pirate freshman in 2004-05, Cerasoli posted 10 points, 6 boards, 6 assists and 5 steals against UConn and 16 points, 5 boards and 4 assists vs. Notre Dame.
Cerasoli likely enters a starting lineup that has a number of viable candidates. Senior guard Clarence Sanders arrived at Ole Miss last year as one of the nation’s top juco scorers and finished second on the team at 9.1 points per game, coming primarily off the bench.
Junior frontcourt force Jermey Parnell started 20 games a year ago and averaged 12.0 points over the season's final three games. Athletic forward Trey Hampton earned the starting nod nine times as a freshman and dropped in 14 points against Saint Louis and 11 against national-champion Florida.
Include junior guard Brian Smith and sophomore forward Xavier Hansbro, and Kennedy boasts a wealth of live bodies for his up-tempo brand of basketball.
“We've got experience in the backcourt and scoring in the frontcourt in Dwayne Curtis,” he said. “We've added some pieces to the puzzle that we feel will accentuate what we have returning. We need some guys to turn potential into productivity. We need our upperclassmen to truly take ownership of this program.”
Kennedy has the pieces in place this season to lay a foundation for the ultimate goal ... return titles to Ole Miss.
“We've got inroads to make to get Ole Miss basketball where it needs to be, which is fighting for the top of the SEC,” said Kennedy. “There are certainly challenges ahead, but I view this as an excellent opportunity.
“It's a great time to be at Ole Miss, with all the improvements that have been made at the University. And we feel like it is our challenge to bring Ole Miss men's basketball up to the standard of the University of Mississippi.”
The Rebel backcourt exhibits experience and upside. Todd Abernethy (Carmel, Ind.) has not missed a game in his career and started every game at the point as a freshman and again as a junior. As a sophomore, Abernethy played both point and shooting guard off the pine and was the SEC Sixth Man of the Year. Last year, he posted 8.6 points, 2.9 assists and shot 42.2 percent from behind the arc.
Those within the Ole Miss family have anxiously waited to see Justin Cerasoli (Chicago, Ill.) in a Red and Blue jersey. In his one season at Seton Hall, he was the first guard off the bench, averaged 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists and was productive against some of college hoops’ elite programs in the BIG EAST.
“One of our primary ballhanders will certainly be Todd Abernethy,” Kennedy said. “He is a young man who has experienced a lot of individual success at this level. He has obviously been through the wars of the Southeastern Conference, and hopefully that experience will pay dividends for us this year.
“Justin Cerasoli is a very talented lead guard, whose ball skills and versatility will enable him to help us at both backcourt spots.”
Freshman Eniel Polynice (Sarasota, Fla.), who signed with the Rebels in July, is in the same mold as Cerasoli as a 6-foot-5 long, athletic guard. Junior Brian Smith (Lexington, Ky.) was Ole Miss’ top 3-point shooter in SEC play last year (.455) and provides further depth at point.
At the off-guard slot, Abernethy, Cerasoli and Polynice could also see minutes, along with Clarence Sanders (Phenix City, Fla.) In his debut season with the Rebels, Sanders showed flashes of the 22.4-point scorer that made him the top junior college two-guard in 2004-05. Facing SEC Eastern Division champ Tennessee in Knoxville, Sanders blew up for seven 3-pointers and 29 points.
“We're looking for Clarence Sanders to live up to his potential,” said Kennedy. “Typically, the biggest jump you see in players is between junior college kids' first and second years. We're certainly hopeful that Clarence has the type of the year that we think he is capable of having.”
Senior Bam Doyne (Little Rock, Ark.) saw minutes at both the two and three spots last year and emerged as a weapon for the Rebels, leading the team in scoring in six games and averaging 9.0 points. Freshman Rodney Jones (Alexandria, La.) is another off-guard candidate that enjoyed an extremely successful prep career.
“Bam's aggressive style of play is going to transition smoothly into the way in which we're going to play,” Kennedy said. “He’s a senior that has played valuable minutes, and we're hopeful that that experience will translate into productivity on a consistent basis.
“Rodney Jones is a winner. He is a player who defensively will be able to help us in a variety of ways.”
With long guards like Cerasoli and Polynice, Kennedy has the opportunity at times to attack with a smaller lineup of three guards. As a conventional small forward, sophomore Trey Hampton (Hoover, Ala.) supplies athleticism and size. He started nine games last year and dropped in 8 or more points on seven occasions.
“We're going to give Trey Hampton an opportunity to play facing the basket,” said Kennedy. “If his ball skills and decision-making allow him, it will give us options to go big along the frontline with him playing the majority of his minutes at the small forward.”
Doyne’s versatility and aggressiveness have served him at the three slot, and he will also garner time at that position.
The Ole Miss post features an established scorer with all-conference distinction in junior Dwayne Curtis (Chicago, Ill.). A transfer from Auburn, Curtis was named a Team Captain before his first game as a Rebel and came through with 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He was second in the SEC in both field goal percentage (.573) and offensive rebounds (3.52).
“Dwayne Curtis needs to continue to take that next step in his natural progression as a player, which means being an all-league player and making his teammates better,” Kennedy said.
The other frontcourt spot has a number of potential starters, beginning with powerful junior Jermey Parnell (Gosnell, Ark.). The 6-foot-8, 245-pounder came into his own at season’s end, reaching his career high of 14 points twice in the final three contests.
“I've been very impressed with Jermey Parnell, his approach and his attitude,” said Kennedy. “He gives us a physical presence at the basket, especially defensively and on the glass.”
Sophomore Xavier Hansbro (Trezevant, Tenn.) is the club’s tallest player at 6-foot-9 and has the 3-point prowess to stretch the defense. Hampton will also see time on the blocks along with 6-foot-8 newcomers Kenny Williams (Miami, Fla.) and Andy Ogide (Dallas, Ga.).
“Kenny Williams physically is going to change the make-up of our team from day one on campus,” said Kennedy. “His athleticism along with his aggressive approach is going to pay immediate dividends for next year's team.
“Andy Ogide's length and versatility will allow him to help us at multiple positions in the frontcourt. As with most new players, his ability to transition to the speed and strength of the game at this level will determine how much his impact will be felt.”
Ole Miss takes on four of last year’s NCAA Elite Eight teams, including two of the last three national champions as part of the 2006-07 schedule. The Rebels are facing two-time national champ UConn as part of the Hispanic College Fund Classic in Hartford, Conn. The non-conference slate is also highlighted by the renewal of the Mid-South rivalry with Memphis at the FedEx Forum. Other road opponents include Saint Louis and South Alabama.
The always challenging SEC schedule features home-and-home battles with the five Western Division rivals, including Final Four participant LSU. The Rebels also match up with all six SEC East foes and travel to Gainesville for a date with 2006 NCAA Champion Florida.
Ole Miss is slated to make at least 13 television appearances this season. In one of five games on Fox Sports Net, the Rebels open league play with Kentucky in a Saturday night clash in Oxford on FSN South. Ole Miss and Mississippi State renew their bitter rivalry in Oxford with an ESPN “Super Tuesday” showdown. In addition, the Rebels are set to play four games on Lincoln Financial Sports, two on CSS and a first-ever ESPNU appearance at Connecticut.
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