By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
HOOVER, Ala. – Andy Kennedy likes his team, even though he doesn’t know half of them. Or hasn’t seen half of them respond in a Division I basketball game.
The Ole Miss coach lost three underclassmen from the 2010 group that went 24-11 as Ole Miss reached the NIT semifinals for the second time in three years.
“We have an eclectic mix of old and new,” Kennedy, beginning his fifth season at Ole Miss, told writers at SEC Media Day Thursday. “We have six returning players who have started an SEC game and six who have never put on an Ole Miss uniform.”
Kennedy calls one of his six returning players, Chris Warren, the best point guard in the SEC.
One of his new players hasn’t put on an Ole Miss uniform but has put on an Indiana one, and the Rebels will look for a big impact from Nick Williams.
Another newcomer, freshman DeMarco Cox, Kennedy believes will adapt quickly in the post, and still another was a surprise pick-up late to help replace Murphy Holloway in junior college transfer Steadman Short.
“I think the West is wide open, and our goal, like everyone’s, is to make the NCAA tournament.,” Kennedy said. “I think we have the pieces. We all will be depending on new people, and those who can make the transition the earliest will emerge.
“For us, having the best point guard in the league is not a bad place to start.”
Holloway had two years remaining when he announced in May he was leaving for personal reasons. He will sit out this season at South Carolina and will be eligible next season. His absence subtracts 10.3 rebounds a game from the frontcourt.
Replacing them will be a committee effort.
Junior Terrance Henry averaged 3.7 rebounds last year, sophomore Reggie Buckner 4.5.
Henry has grown to 6-10 and 210 pounds and is better equipped to handled the physicality of inside play, Kennedy says.
Cox is listed at 6-9, 295 pounds. Kennedy says his work ethic is better than he’s ever seen for true freshman post player, and that and his natural footwork and ability “will make him a star” one day.
To start with, it will give him a chance to be in the playing rotation.
Warren assesses Cox this way: “We call him ‘Black Bear,’ because of our new mascot. That’s the joke going around. He’s so big down there.”
Ready to roll?
Less acclimation time should be needed for Williams and Short.
Short (6-8, 230) was a 23-game starter at High Point University, a Division I member of the Big South, two years ago. He averaged 13 points and eight rebounds at Chipola (Community) College last year.
Williams (6-4, 215) was a 29-game starter at Indiana, averaging 8.9 points and 4.5 rebounds. He was a double-figure scorer 14 times.
Kennedy calls Williams a leader and says he can help replace the production of Terrico White, taken in the second round of the NBA draft, even if he produces in different ways.
“His voice is the second-loudest in the gym. Mine’s the loudest,” Kennedy said. “Nick will hit 50 or 60 3s at a reasonable percentage, but that’s not what he does.”
That is what Warren does, shooting 40.4 percent from 3-point range last year. Kennedy has challenged him to be more vocal. He has responded, he says, but will still pick his spots to address his teammates.
“I get guys’ attention. When I speak they know what I have to say is important,” Warren said.
Ultimately, whether by Warren’s 3-point shot and leadership or by the emergence of unknowns, the Rebels are trying to get to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, the longest drought in the SEC.
That was Kennedy’s challenge to Warren in the offseason.
“He told me I had one more year, and if I didn’t make the NCAA tournament, what had I done,” Warren said. “He told me I needed to be more vocal, and that while I had worked hard, I needed to work harder than I had ever worked.”