By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Ole Miss’ Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner are already two of the most productive frontcourt players in school history.
Now the pair of seniors would like all those points, rebounds and blocked shots to finally add up to an NCAA tournament appearance.
“Everybody’s focused — we’re all on the same page,” Buckner said. “We’re all a family. Everybody wants the same goal, everything’s been smooth. Everyone knows that the No. 1 goal for us is to make it to the (NCAA) tournament.”
That’s been an elusive destination for the Rebels, who haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2002. It’s the longest drought in the Southeastern Conference.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy — who enters his seventh season with the program — has had the Rebels close to the NCAA tournament on numerous occasions. They’ve had five 20-win seasons and five appearances in the National Invitation Tournament, including two trips to the semifinals.
But Kennedy is completely aware that coaches are judged by NCAA Tournament appearances and success. And with accomplished seniors like Holloway, Buckner and guard Nick Williams, this might represent his best — and last — chance to lead the Rebels to college basketball’s premier postseason event.
“It’s an experienced, productive front line,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to be dependent upon those guys to produce for us early while everybody else figures it out.”
Buckner is already the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots with 228, a number that also ranks sixth all-time in the SEC’s record books. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward has always been a tremendous defender, but it’s his improving offensive game that has Kennedy intrigued.
Buckner averaged 6.9 points and 8.1 rebounds last season.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” Kennedy said. “The thing that I’ve been the most impressed with is offensively he’s (improved) by leaps and bound. He’s a very good passer. He plays out of the mid-post, and we’re trying to play through him as much as possible.”
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Holloway averaged 11.2 points and 9.0 rebounds last season. He was also third in the SEC with 11 double-doubles and was one of the emotional leaders for a team that finished with a 20-14 record before losing to Illinois State in the first round of the NIT.
That team was built around the inside play of Holloway, Buckner and now-departed senior Terrance Henry. This season, the Rebels hope to have a little more help from the guards.
Shooting was a sore spot for Ole Miss last season. The Rebels made just 31.6 percent of their 3-pointers last season and made only 60.3 percent of their free throws.
The addition of junior college transfer Marshall Henderson should help. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 19.6 points last season for South Plains College (Texas) and he made 41 percent of his 3-pointers. The well-traveled veteran also has Division I experience — he averaged 11.8 points per game at Utah during the 2009-10 season before transferring to Texas Tech and then South Plains.
Freshman guards Derrick Millinghaus and Martavious Newby are also expected to help in a backcourt that returns Williams and sophomores Jarvis Summers and LaDarius White.
The 6-foot-3 Summers was the team’s starting point guard by the end of last season. He averaged 10.4 points and 3.4 assists per game. Williams averaged 10.1 points per game and made a team-high 38 3-pointers.
The offense will “still go through the post,” Holloway said. “But I think there’s going to be a lot less double teams. Once people see we have shooters, it’ll be a little harder to guard us.”
One thing that Kennedy doesn’t want to change is the team’s hard-nosed demeanor. The Rebels seemingly willed their way to several victories last season thanks to the toughness of Holloway and Buckner.
“This team has to continue to grind,” Kennedy said. “We just have more weapons. We score the ball a little easier. We’ve got different guys that can do different things. We hope as a result of that, it gives us a greater margin of error then we had last year.”
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