Names Change, Expectations Don'tRebels Eye Return to Big Dance
Nov. 2, 2015
OXFORD, Miss. - After leading the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the three seasons in 2014-15, Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy entered the offseason facing a familiar situation -- reloading a roster to compete in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
"We re-invent ourselves every year," said Kennedy, who has the third-most wins in SEC history by a coach in his first nine years in the league at one school trailing only Joe B. Hall (Kentucky) and Billy Donovan (Florida). "We try to recruit to a philosophy and then once we get kids, we try to read their strengths and weaknesses and put them into a position that they can be successful. This year will be no different."
Ole Miss returns three starters off last year's team that knocked off BYU in the Big Dance -- including the SEC's leading returning scorer in Stefan Moody -- but must replace five departed seniors, headlined by point guard Jarvis Summers, who ended his career as one of only four players in SEC history with 1,600 career points and 500 career assists.
In addition to replacing Summers, the Rebels must replace a pair of backcourt players in LaDarius White (11.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Terence Smith (3.9 ppg, 1.7 apg) and a pair of frontcourt players in M.J. Rhett (7.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Aaron Jones (3.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg).
Moody is back as the Rebels' primary scoring option after averaging 16.6 ppg and a league-best 18.6 ppg in conference play last season. The senior guard knocked down 78 3-pointers a year ago, which is the eighth most in a single-season in school history, and ranked seventh in the nation with a .903 free throw percentage en route to first team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press and the league's coaches.
"When you start with the leading scorer returning in the SEC and an all-league guy in Stefan Moody, it's not a bad place to start."
Moody suffered a stress fracture in his left tibia in June and immediately had surgery to repair the fracture. He has shown no ill effects from the surgery and began practice with the team when fall camp opened in October.
"I see another whole step in his development," Kennedy said. "Honestly, if you did not know about the injury, you would have never known that he was hurt. He is as explosive as ever and has the senior sense of urgency that I talk about all the time. He is really locked in and focused. We need him, from a production standpoint, to duplicate his from last year, to be a basket-getter and a playmaker for us. He is going to do that. We have asked for him to evolve into a leadership role, and provide leadership to a number of these new guys."
Among the new Rebels Kennedy added, is JUCO transfer Sam Finley, who is expected to fill the void in the backcourt left by Summers. The 6-2 guard was the Big West Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman at UC-Riverside after he averaged a team-best 15.2 ppg in conference play before transferring to junior college. Finley was primarily a shooting guard before transferring to Oxford, but Kennedy sees him as the Rebels' ball handler.
"Every situation is going to be different," Kennedy said. "I don't have any concerns with Sam being a lead guard, especially in the situations that we're going to put him so we can showcase his abilities."
"Sam is a little like (Stefan) Moody. They are about the same size and had similar paths to get here. They are both guys that have been in DI games before and have had success at this level. I think that's helped Sam acclimate to our program. We are going to expect a lot of him simply because he is coming into a situation where we have a huge void. We had a four-year starter in Jarvis (Summers), who we have to replace, and there is an opportunity for him to be a leader with the ball. He has come in, day in and day out, and put himself in a position to earn that right, to lead us with the ball."
In addition to Finley, Ole Miss also added three more guards in junior college transfer Rasheed Brooks and freshmen guards Terence Davis and JT Escobar. Brooks, a 6-5 swingman, averaged 14.2 ppg and earned first team junior college All-American honors last year at Southwest Tennessee. A 6-4 guard, Davis was a standout basketball player at Southaven High School in Mississippi, while Escobar earned Parade All-America honors at Florida A&M University High School in 2014 before spending a year at Elev8 Prep.
"Rasheed Brooks was a first team junior college All-American and Terence Davis is from right up the road in Southaven and was a top-150 national recruit. We also get JT Escobar back from a year at prep school, and that really helped his development. I think we have a lot of pieces that we're all excited about. Now it's just a matter of seeing how they all come together."
Ole Miss also signed Miami (Fla.) freshman transfer Deandre Burnett, who will sit out this season due to the transfer rule. Burnett, a 6-2 scoring guard, should step in a fill the void after Moody departs next season.
Senior guard Martavious Newby is the Rebels' other returning starter in the backcourt after he started 27 games a year ago and pulled down 5.4 rpg to go along with 4.0 ppg. Fellow senior Anthony Perez bolsters the Ole Miss frontcourt and provides the ability to step out beyond the arc. Perez played with the Venezuelan national team this summer and averaged 24.5 ppg in a pair of wins over Iowa State and USF in an exhibition tour.
"Anthony had a great August with his national team and that did wonders for his confidence," Kennedy said. "I am excited about the versatility he can provide our team."
In the frontcourt, the Rebels also return junior Sebastian Saiz, who boasts 45 career starts in the post, and averaged 7.6 points and a team-best 5.5 boards a game last season.
"Heading into his junior year Sebas is ready to take the next step in his progress as a player. He is ready to become an all-league caliber player for us and provide a pressence in the post." Memphis native Marcanvis Hymon is back after playing in only six games in December before redshirting for his freshman season. Kennedy believes the extra year will provide immediate dividends for the Rebels in the post.
"I think KG (Hymon) is ready to help us this year," Kennedy said. "He is ready physically, and he is much more comfortable in year two. He understands what he has to do to be a contributor. He has physically developed into a player that has a Murphy Holloway-type instinct around the ball and is going to be able to block some shots with his athleticism."
To help in the post, Kennedy added fifth-year graduate transfer Tomasz Gielo from Liberty. The 6-9, 230 pound Gielo played in only seven games for the Flames last season after suffering a stress fracture in his foot, but he averaged nearly 11 points and 6 boards as a junior and knocked down better than 40 percent of his 3s over his two seasons.
"He is very mature in his approach," Kennedy said of Geilo. "He is a college graduate and has played in the NCAA Tournament after Liberty won their conference tournament a couple of years ago. He has a great deal of international experience, like (Sebastian) Saiz, and is a member of the Polish national team. He has a skill set that we have never really had at that position; he can really shoot the ball from the perimeter and has rugged, physical nature to his play. He has played a lot of basketball at a high level and is very excited about having an opportunity to be a part of this program."
Junior forward Terry Brutus, who has missed much of the last two seasons due to injury, suffered a ankle injury early in camp and is sidelined after surgery heading into the start of the season. The Rebels will move into the long-awaited, $90-million Pavilion at Ole Miss in time for conference play in January. The grand opening weekend celebration begins Jan. 7 against Alabama.
"I'm excited about the Pavilion," Kennedy said. "It will be a game changer for us and for our fans. It will provide a gameday experience that, quite frankly, we have never had in basketball. It shows the guys that we are recruiting that you don't have to settle. You have everything that you need at Ole Miss with the Tuohy Basketball Center, with the new Pavilion and with our university striving like no other time in its history. There is a ton of excitement on this campus and a lot of things that people want to be involved with."
Ole Miss tips off the 2015-16 campaign Nov. 13 against Northwestern State, while the always tough Southeastern Conference action begins Jan. 2 on the road at Kentucky.
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