Rebels Ready To Take Off In 2009-10
By Joey JonesOle Miss Athletics Media Relations
If the allure of big-time wins, high-flying dunks, lofty point totals and fast-paced play is what sells tickets in basketball, then the Ole Miss men should draw plenty of large crowds in 2009-10.
Andy Kennedy's Rebels have already set numerous attendance records at Tad Smith Coliseum over the past three seasons, but this winter could prove to be the most profitable yet based on the pieces that are in place entering the season.
Even though Ole Miss lost a pair of starters from last season (David Huertas and Malcolm White), the squad still welcomes back five full-time starters thanks to the return of veteran leaders Eniel Polynice and Chris Warren from injury. Those two, combined with 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year Terrico White, are expected to lead one of the nation's top backcourt units that features talent and depth from top to bottom.
Ole Miss will have less experience on the inside, but senior DeAundre Cranston and sophomore Murphy Holloway, who both gained invaluable court time a year ago, look to bring along a few talented youngsters and provide the Rebels some balance with the star-studded backcourt.
"With the guys that were out last year coming back into the fold, along with the experience our young players gained and the addition of some new pieces to the puzzle, I've never been more excited about a team than I am this one," said Kennedy, who owns a 61-39 record in three seasons as the Rebels' head coach.
Rebel fans should have plenty of reason for excitement, too, when considering the prospects of the coming season. With the team's athleticism and depth, Ole Miss promises to show off the fruits of Kennedy's high-speed offensive philosophies. Warren and Polynice can move the ball up and down the court at a break-necked pace, and White became famous for a few impressive throw-downs as a rookie. Players like Holloway and Terrance Henry move more like guards than many of the big men they will face, and incoming freshman Reginald Buckner is the all-time leader in blocked shots in Tennessee high school history.
Prior to Kennedy's arrival in Oxford, Ole Miss had suffered through four straight losing seasons and was looking for a spark. A 21-win season and a share of the SEC Western Division title in 2006-07 provided just that. When the Rebels went 24-11 and advanced to the NIT Final Four in 2007-08, the stage was set.
"In year three we were hoping to take that next step and break through into the NCAA Tournament," Kennedy said. "Our goals obviously changed with the adversity we had to deal with."
Before SEC play began, Ole Miss lost the services of Gaskins, Polynice and Warren and then had to deal with lingering ailments to Huertas and Graham. By the end of the season, the Rebels were rated statistically as the nation's least experienced team. But despite not reaching 20 wins as they had in the two previous seasons, the Rebels' 16-15 campaign and 7-9 league record produced a variety of positive outcomes on which to build.
"Now that we've had a chance to reflect on the season, I would say I was probably even more proud of that team than the two prior," Kennedy said, "simply because of the challenges that they were forced to face and how they dealt with them."
Entering the 2009-10 season, Ole Miss no longer lacks experience, and with the projected completion of a $13 million, 51,000-square-foot practice facility in December, the program will take a huge leap forward in its ability to prepare like champions. The time seems ripe for the team to launch, like one of Terrico's high-flying dunks, to another level.
"We want to compete for the SEC Championship with the hopes of having an opportunity to advance in the NCAA Tournament," Kennedy said. "Those are our big-picture goals every year. I don't know exactly what the year is going to hold, but I know the pieces are in place to have a special group."
The Rebels will be tested early and often with a challenging schedule in 2009-10. In addition to the always rigorous league slate, Ole Miss has several quality non-conference matchups, including some early ones in the Caribbean sunshine of Puerto Rico. A nationally televised game against Indiana (ESPN2) will kick off the Rebels' participation in the O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off the week before Thanksgiving, while the tournament field also includes such traditional powers as Villanova, Georgia Tech and Dayton. Other non-league highlights include Southern Miss at home (Dec. 5), UTEP in Southaven, Miss. (Dec. 16) and a big road test at West Virginia (Dec. 23 on ESPN2).
Thanks to the new 15-year ESPN and CBS mega-contracts in full effect, every SEC game will be televised live this season. Major national broadcasts include Kentucky on the road (Feb. 2, ESPN), Mississippi State on the road (Feb. 11, ESPN or ESPN2), Florida at home (Feb. 20, CBS), Alabama on the road (Feb. 27, ESPN2) and defending SEC Champion LSU at home (March 4, ESPN or ESPN2).
As a whole, the Rebels' schedule includes 10 teams that advanced to postseason play and 11 teams that won at least 20 games last season.
The situation in the backcourt for Ole Miss this season can be summed up in one word: stacked.
Not only do the Rebels return 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year Terrico White (Memphis, Tenn.), but they also welcome back a trio of key perimeter players that missed all or part of last season to injury in junior starters Eniel Polynice (Sarasota, Fla.) and Chris Warren (Orlando, Fla.) and sophomore Trevor Gaskins (Alpharetta, Ga.), a 2008 SEC All-Freshman pick. Add to that returning junior starter Zach Graham (Suwanee, Ga.) and sophomore Will Bogan (Caldwell, Idaho), who also gained valuable experience and starting nods in SEC play a year ago, and Andy Kennedy has a wealth of talented and experienced guards at his disposal.
Polynice is the veteran member of the Rebel squad and will be counted on for leadership this season. As a sophomore in 2007-08, the Sarasota, Fla., native averaged 10.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He is perhaps best known for his lock-down defense and ability to get into the passing lanes for easy thefts.
"E.P. is probably our most versatile performer and our most experienced as a fourth-year junior," Kennedy said. "I think he matured a lot last year with what he had to deal with. Watching games from the bench changed his perspective and allowed him to see things from the eyes of a coach."
Warren and White have both proven themselves as all-league caliber players and will be counted on as two of the team's primary ball-handlers. Warren was a unanimous choice for the SEC All-Freshman squad in 2008 and was putting up 19.6 points and 4.0 assists per game when he was injured after 11 games last season. White came on in place of Warren and performed at such a high level that he was voted the league's freshman of the year by the coaches and media. White averaged an incredible 18.4 ppg in league play as a rookie.
When asked which of the two recent point men will run the show, Kennedy is quick to turn the tables on that mode of thinking.
"I think the team will belong to the guys who take ownership and prove that ownership on a daily basis," he said. "I've been asked a lot about what we are going to do with Chris and Terrico both coming back. You know what we're going to do? We're going to win."
Gaskins is an underrated piece of the puzzle who Kennedy calls an "emotional leader" that was missing last season. Graham, a wing player, and Bogan, a reserve point guard, both improved dramatically over the course of last season when thrust into bigger roles. Graham averaged double-figure points in league play at 10.8 ppg.
Redshirt-freshman Michael Halford (Madison, Miss.) and junior transfer Logan Nutt (Jonesboro, Ark.) are non-scholarship players who will add even further depth to the backcourt.
Indiana transfer Nick Williams (Mobile, Ala.), a premier recruit out of high school, will sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules.
The Rebels will boast less experience around the basket than along the perimeter, but expect production to come from a variety of potential sources.
DeAundre Cranston (Orlando, Fla.) is the team's lone senior. The 6-foot-9 junior college product has a year in the Rebel system and will be one of the team's bigger bodies on the floor. He grabbed 4.2 boards per contest last season in a reserve role.
"We're expecting to see that first to second-year transition from DeAundre and the improvement that comes with that," Kennedy said. "Now he understands what is expected at this level, and he's changed his body."
Sophomore Murphy Holloway (Irmo, S.C.) is the only returning starter at forward from last year when he led the Rebels with 6.6 rebounds per game to go with 8.4 points per game. A ferocious leaper at 6-foot-7, the coaches are looking for him to also take the next step in his progression as a player.
"Murphy really matured throughout the course of last season," Kennedy said. "He started to understand the consistency with which you have to play to be successful, and we hope he will continue to develop that consistency as a sophomore."
Sophomores Terrance Henry (Monroe, La.) and Kevin Cantinol (Guadeloupe, French West Indies) also gained valuable experience a year ago and enter the season in the best physical condition since they arrived in Oxford. A highly touted recruit out of high school, Henry put up averages of 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds as a tall, lanky freshman, but has worked on getting stronger during the offseason to counter the bigger bodies he faces around the basket.
Added to the mix will be highly touted freshman Reginald Buckner (Memphis, Tenn.) and JUCO transfer DeAngelo Riley (Memphis, Tenn.). Buckner set the Tennessee high school record for blocked shots in a career and earned the state's Mr. Basketball title after guiding Manassas to the state championship last year.
"At 6-foot-8, 230 pounds, Reginald is long and athletic and brings a shot-blocking presence that we haven't had before. He's a winner, and we feel very good about his opportunity to come in and make an immediate impact. DeAngelo is a 6-9 kid with great length and ability to defend at the basket. He's also an underrated offensive player."
The 2009-10 season unofficially begins with a Nov. 6 exhibition against Auburn-Montgomery on the night before the Northern Arizona football game. The regular season tips off on Nov. 13 against UALR, the night before a big home foortball game with Tennessee. Season tickets for the Rebels' 16 regular-season home games can be purchased online at OleMissSports.com (click here) or by calling the Ole Miss Ticket Office toll-free at 1-888-732-8587.
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