Open Season

Ole Miss men's basketball opened the 2010-11 season Friday, as head coach Andy Kennedy put a new-look lineup through its first practice of the fall.

Thursday was a busy news day in Oxford, Miss.

After a long and tedious process, Ole Miss named its new on-the-field mascot, a costumed black bear, likely to debut in 2011. A former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, spoke in the Grove, encouraging students to vote and offering his support of head football coach Houston Nutt, who hails from Clinton's home state of Arkansas.

Inexplicably, there seemed to be little room for Ole Miss athletics. In other news, Nutt and his Rebels will meet No. 8 Alabama Saturday. Andy Kennedy was a day away from ushering in his fifth season at the helm of Ole Miss basketball with a practice closed to the media Friday.

For one day, though the debate rages on, Ole Miss was bear crazy.

"I'm worried about a different type of animal right now - I'm worried about those elephants," Nutt said.

Kennedy probably wasn't too concerned with mascots, either. His team, with a new-look lineup, is hoping to build off a 24-11 season. Ole Miss finished 9-7 in Southeastern Conference play a year ago, won the SEC West, and advanced to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament in New York.

"The offseason approach has been as good as any team that I've had here," he said. "The kids have been very workmanlike in their approach. As a result, I think we'll be able to hit the ground running."

Old meets new:

Half of Kennedy's roster is new.

Gone are Terrico White, Eniel Polynice and Murphy Holloway. But Kennedy is optimistic with the arrivals of Steadman Short, Donald Williams, Dundrecous Nelson, Demarco Cox and Isaiah Massey.

Terrance Henry

"The dynamic of this team is totally different, as you would imagine," Kennedy said. "Of our 12 scholarship guys, six of them are new to this situation. I think we've got a good mix, though. We've got a good mix of the old and the new."

Ole Miss is led by its trio of respected upperclassmen – Chris Warren, Zach Graham and Trevor Gaskins. Terrance Henry and Reginald Buckner will control the front court, while Nick Williams is expected to bring valuable minutes through his versatility.

"Nick Williams is kind of an old-school player," Kennedy said. "His versatility is his calling card. He's a winner. He's a competitor. Usually when you come into practice, my voice will be the loudest. His voice will be the second loudest."

Kennedy knows what he has in Warren and Graham. Gaskins, a hustle player with a non-stop motor, is often unpredictable, but Kennedy doesn't question his effort or drive. However, Kennedy has been most impressed with Henry, formerly a top-ranked recruit who has made significant strides in two seasons.

"We brought him here with the potential to be an all-league guy," Kennedy said. "He's taken huge steps towards that heading into year three. He has a true sense of urgency, and an understanding that his role has changed. As a result, he's always been a verbal guy, but he's leading those young guys.

"He's really given us the leadership we've needed in the offseason."

Kennedy impressed with Cox, Nelson:

Freshmen Demarco Cox and Dundrecous Nelson are Mississippians who signed with Ole Miss nearly a year ago to play basketball, inking with the Rebels in the early signing period last fall.

Now they are on campus, and Kennedy believes they will have an impact.

"Demarco Cox came here at 6-8, 323," he said of the Yazoo City High product. "Now he's down to a svelte 297; we hope on his way down to about 285. But when you see him, you'll never think he weighs 300 pounds he's so well proportioned."

Kennedy said Cox comes to work every day.

"He has the highest work capacity for any high school big I've ever been associated with. Incredible worker. Incredible drive.

Andy Kennedy

"No-nonsense, and not a lot of silliness to Demarco Cox between those lines. He wants to be a good player, and he's paid the price in the offseason to put himself in position. Obviously there are a lot of things he's got to learn like the speed of the game. But he's going to be a tremendous player for us."

Kennedy is extraordinarily high on Nelson.

"Dundrecous Nelson is as talented a kid as we've had in this program," he said of the Jackson Murrah alum. "From a start-go point physically, he's got as much talent as anybody that we've been able to sign. He's 5-11, 195, he's quick, hard, very athletic. He's very strong.

His athleticism is off the charts, or at least at the top of them, according to Kennedy.

"He's got a max vertical of just under 40 inches, which is borderline Terrico territory, which was No. 1 in the NBA draft. And that's as a true freshman. Got a lot to learn but got a great guy to learn it from in Chris Warren. He's shown a real propensity to want to work and be better, and as a coach that's encouraging."

Wide-open West?

Kennedy said the Southeastern Conference, especially the West, should again be a wide-open affair.

"Every year I've been here, the SEC West has been a bit of a puzzle. I think this year is the same. I think we're all dependent on new guys. It's one of the reasons I have guarded optimism."

In-state rival Mississippi State received a shot in the arm with the reinstatement of senior guard Dee Bost. Bost joins veterans Ravern Johnson and Cody Augustus.

"Mississippi State has Dee Bost returning right at the beginning of league play, and they also return Ravern and Cody Augustus, guys that have been through the fire as well. Bring in a new guy like Renardo Sidney. I've reeled off four or five pretty good players."

Andy Kennedy

Auburn, like Ole Miss, is experiencing some turnover, most notably amongst its coaching staff. Kennedy said Arkansas and Alabama will also be relying on fresh faces.

"Auburn is going through a transition, not only from a coaching change but they lost a lot of contributors from last year. LSU is going through a change as well with an infusion of young talent. Arkansas will be dependent on some new guys. Alabama as well. We're all depending on some new guys to step up and fill a role.

As for the East, he actually sees more of the same, and that is a host of strong teams.

"The East will be strong with Florida being very good, top 20 good. Tennessee lost some players but has a very strong nucleus returning. Georgia I think will take that next step with the returning players there. Obviously Kentucky just reloads with a who's who of very talented players. Vanderbilt with Kevin Stallings may be the most consistent coach from a production standpoint in this league. South Carolina will be as good as ever."

Kennedy hopes the conference, with only four NCAA Tournament bids last season, all from the East, is in position to get more into the field this time around.

"From top to bottom, the SEC will be a quality league. It will be back to the SEC standard, which as coaches we hope is a five or six bid league, and I think that will be the case this year."

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