PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Oct. 27, 2016
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
When head coach Andy Kennedy looks at the 2016-17 edition of his Rebel hoops squad, the Dean of SEC Basketball coaches finds himself in a familiar situation.
Ole Miss returns a pair of starters off last year’s 20-win team, including senior forward Sebastian Saiz, the SEC’s active career leader with 599 rebounds, but must replace dynamic scorer Stefan Moody, who led the league in scoring a year ago with 23.6 ppg.
“We reinvent ourselves every year,” said Kennedy, who has the fourth-most wins in SEC history by a coach in his first 10 years in the league at one school, trailing only Joe B. Hall (Kentucky), Billy Donovan (Florida) and Wimp Sanderson (Alabama). “We try to recruit to a philosophy, and then once we get kids, we try to read their strengths and weaknesses and put them in a position where they can be successful. This year will be no different.”
An influx of talented newcomers, including college transfers Deandre Burnett (Miami) and Cullen Neal (New Mexico), gives Kennedy the pieces he needs to help return the Rebels to the Big Dance. Now he must find a way to fit all the pieces together.
“We have 12 scholarship players and only five of those have played in a game for Ole Miss,” said Kennedy, the all-time winningest coach in school history. “We are dealing with half of our roster being new between high school players and transfers, so right now we are just trying to find out who we are.
“Last year we needed Stefan Moody to be a volume guy, but this year we have five, six or seven guys that could average double figures, and I think that shows our depth and versatility.”
Saiz returns to anchor the Rebel frontcourt this season after finishing second on the team with an 11.7 ppg scoring average and leading the squad in rebounds pulling down 8.7 boards a game. He has 10 career double-doubles and looks to be Ole Miss’ first scoring option this season.
“This year will be a little different in that we will run more offense through Saiz on the block,” Kennedy said. “Last year when we needed a basket, we went through Stefan Moody, and before that it was Marshall Henderson or Murphy Holloway to his left hand. This year our first option will be Saiz on the block, and I think he is ready for the challenge.
“Sebas (Saiz) has approached this season with a senior sense of urgency. He is healthy after missing six games with an eye injury last year. He is one of my favorite players I’ve had here. His energy is always right, he is positive and he is going to put in the work. His game has evolved offensively, and he has gotten stronger. He is 6-9 with a 7-6 wingspan and that helps make up for his lack of explosive athleticism. I have challenged him to be a double-double guy and lead the SEC in rebounding this season, and I think he can do both. He is also a guy that will make some 3s this year. That is an area of his game that he has worked on this offseason. He has always been a good jump shooter, but he has worked tirelessly on extending his range.”
Joining Saiz in the Ole Miss frontcourt is junior forward Marcanvis Hymon (6.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Hymon finished third on the team in rebounding a year ago and has developed into an athletic defender in the paint for the Rebels.
“I think KG (Hymon) elevated his game last year and is ready to take another step this season,” Kennedy said. “He is physically mature and understands what it takes to be a contributor. He can help inside with his athleticism and ability to block shots.”
To help in the post, Kennedy added a trio of newcomers this season in JUCO transfer Justas Furmanavicius (6-7, 210) and a pair of high school big men in Nate Morris (6-9, 235) and Karlis Silins (6-11, 245).
“The thing that jumped off the page when we started recruiting Justas was how hard he played, how physical he is and how athletic he is,” Kennedy said. “He is hands down the hardest working player on our team. He is guy you want on the floor because he plays so hard and makes plays. We have worked Justas at the three some in the preseason instead of the four due to numbers, and I think it will be something that will help us. His ability to play both position gives us a lot of versatility.
“Karlis has made a great impression so far. He is really big and can shoot the ball. He has a mature edge on the court, tough and is sneaky athletic.”
Freshman Nate Morris comes to Oxford after winning back-to-back Texas 6A state titles and the 6-9 center provides depth in the middle for the Rebels.
“Nate is an athletic rim protector who gives us more size and depth along our front line,” Kennedy said.
Ole Miss also added transfer Dominik Olejniczak (7-0, 255) from Drake in the offseason, who must sit out this season due to transfer rules, but gives the Rebels a quality big man after Saiz graduates this season.
“Dominik will be great for (Saiz) in practice because he is 7-0, 255 pounds. He will provide competition in practice that (Saiz) didn’t have to face last year and will make him a better player and next season he will be our guy inside.”
To fill the Rebels’ backcourt needs, Ole Miss added a pair of experienced, talented guards in transfers Burnett and Neal. Burnett, a 6-2 guard, sat out last season after transferring from Miami and gives the Rebels a strong scoring option the backcourt.
“Even though he is a newcomer to our team this year, I still view him as a veteran because he has been with our program for over a year,” Kennedy said. “He is very anxious to get on the floor and has waited a long time for this opportunity. He is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached. Day in and day out, he is going to put his work in.
“He can score at all three levels. I don’t need him to be a high-volume guy, but he is a guy who can make 70-80 3s. He has a good mid-range game and is strong enough to take the ball to the basket and finish.”
Neal, who graduated from New Mexico in only three years, transferred to Oxford after starting 31 games for the Lobos last season at point guard and has two years of eligibility remaining at Ole Miss. He averaged 12.3 ppg and posted a team-high 3.7 assists a game for his father, Craig Neal, last season.
“Cullen has been tremendous. He is another very hard worker. He was in a completely different system playing for his father. With both him and Deandre, you are talking about two 22-year-old men. Cullen is a college graduate and is anxious to show that he made the right decision. We are anxious to put him in the right position to show that as well.”
Senior Rasheed Brooks, the Rebels’ other returning starter from last year, averaged 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds a game last year in his first season in Oxford. He finished third on the team with 33 3-pointers made and gives Ole Miss a veteran presence in the backcourt.
“Rasheed has been the most vocal leader through camp, and I’m really pleased with his approach,” Kennedy said. “I am looking for more consistency from him as a senior.”
Sophomore guards Terence Davis and Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey return after limited duty in their first season with the Rebels. Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, who played backup point guard, averaged 3.7 points and 12.1 minutes a game last year. Davis, a former top-150 recruit, averaged just 6.6 minutes a game a year ago but saw a huge improvement in his game during the off-season.
“TD (Davis) has made the most improvement of any player from last year,” Kennedy said. “This is the first year he has played basketball full time in his life, and he has taken advantage of the opportunity. He has gained weight and gotten stronger in the weight room. He has really made huge strides in his game.
“Donte has gotten much stronger and i much more comfortable in year two. His versatility will by a big asset to our backcourt.”
The Rebels move into the $96.5 million Pavilion at Ole Miss full-time this season after playing only conference games in the new arena last year. Ole Miss’ home slate features 18 games, including nine SEC games in The Pavilion.
“I really didn’t know what to expect last year,” Kennedy said. “I thought I did, but I didn’t. It has been a complete program changer. Not only for the guys in the program now, but in recruiting and fan experience.”
Ole Miss tips off the 2016-17 campaign Nov. 11 against UT Martin in The Pavilion, while the always-challenging Southeastern Conference slate begins at home Dec. 29 versus Kentucky.
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