No Worries

Ole Miss opens its season Friday with an exhibition game against Delta State at 6 p.m. Go inside for a detailed notebook, including notes on Zach Graham, Nick Williams and Demarco Cox.

This time of year, the first week of November, is usually a hectic time for college basketball coaches.

Not so much for Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy.

"I don't really have any worries. I like this team," he said Tuesday, just days before his team tips off in an exhibition game with Delta State.

The personnel losses from last season's 24-11 team have been written about and discussed ad nauseum, as have the additions of six newcomers.

What reassures Kennedy is the drive of his fifth team. Led by seniors Chris Warren and Zach Graham, two no-nonsense players with a one-track focus of reaching the NCAA Tournament, this team approaches each and every practice with strict concentration and vigor.

Andy Kennedy

"If we can stay healthy, which I can't control, other than trying not to step on any cracks between here and the next six months," Kennedy said of the team's potential, "I like this group.

"I think we've got experience. I think we've got good guard play. I really like the way our frontcourt is developing. I think we've got the pieces to be a good group."

Kennedy said, at this point in the preseason, Ole Miss is further along defensively than previously expected, which he credits to the players understanding their roles, as well as their marked ability to communicate on the floor.

"Communication is so key to being solid defensively. This group has communicated better," he said. "I think a lot of it's just based on we've got some experienced guys who've grown into their roles. This group I've been pleased with defensively."

Offensively, though, Kennedy said this group still has some work to do. The offense will undoubtedly run through Warren, who enters the season ranked 15th in school history with 1,372 points. But how Kennedy's rotation shakes out is yet to be determined.

"Offensively, we're still figuring some things out," Kennedy said. "We're still trying to play at a fast pace. You combine those two (offense and defense), and there's some shaky moments at times. But, overall, I've been pleased."

Williams inching closer to debut:

Nick Williams is only a sophomore and has yet to start a game at Ole Miss. But ask around, and it's clear the Indiana transfer has already made a lasting impression in his brief time in Oxford.

"He's exactly what I thought he would be, and that's a good thing," Kennedy said. "We knew he was going to be ultra-competitive. He's got natural leadership abilities."

Kennedy described Williams as a versatile player able to score in a variety of ways, even using a baseball term by branding the 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard as a "utility infielder."

Nick Williams

"We can plug him into different gaps," Kennedy said. "He can guard multiple positions. I know each and every day, he's going to come in and compete, which is something, as a coach, you relish."

Williams played in 31 games, starting 29, in his only season at Indiana under Tom Crean. He ranked fourth on the team with 8.9 points per game and third with 4.5 rebounds per game. Williams also led the Hoosiers with a 73.8 free-throw percentage.

He's being called upon to replace the production lost in Terrico White, who left for the NBA after his sophomore season, and was eventually drafted by the Detroit Pistons.

"I wasn't really surprised, because of the talent Terrico had," Williams said of White's decision to enter the draft. "I just took it in stride. I knew I was going to be able to play this year, I just didn't know what my role was going to be. When I found out (he was leaving), I was like, hey, I need to step up."

Graham isn't shy in his praise of Williams. In his years playing basketball, including over 100 games at Ole Miss, he's rarely, if ever, had a better teammate.

"Nick Williams is probably one of the best teammates I've ever been around, in all my years in basketball," Graham said. "He works hard every day. I have no complaints about him. He works hard. He's a good teammate."

Williams said he is more nervous than anxious about his debut Friday at 6 p.m. And he's trying not to put too much pressure on himself. His role, he said, is simple: To be a vocal presence for a new-look team featuring a wealth of talented, albeit inexperienced, newcomers.

"I don't think it's a secret; just me coming in and being a leader on the court," he said. "That was a God-given talent for me, being loud and being playful. But when it's time to be serious, I'm always the first one to get on guys. I feel like it's OK for guys to get on me."

NCAA Tournament or bust?

Graham has played three seasons in a Rebel uniform. He's 23 wins shy of leaving the program with the most wins of any one player in program history.

But there's a glaring omission from his career resume.

Graham, like Warren, has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament. His teams have come close twice (2007-08 and 2009-10), but were twice forced to settle for bids to the National Invitation Tournament.

Zach Graham

Ole Miss advanced to the NIT Final Four in New York a year ago.

"That's definitely our goal," Graham said of the NCAA Tournament. "This is my fourth year here, and we haven't been to the tournament. That's definitely what we're pushing for."

Despite notable departures and inexperience in spots, Graham said this team is capable of reaching the field of 64. Graham said the players "have a good feel for each other," and have yet to have a bad practice.

"I think we have a good feel for each other when we're out there on the court and even off the court," he said. "Like I said, we've all been working hard. We haven't had a bad practice. Every practice, we get better. We just have a good feel for each other."

Slimmer Cox poised to contribute:

Freshman center Demarco Cox arrived in the summer, weighing in at 321 pounds.

He knew he would have to adjust his workout regimen, despite his dominant numbers in high school, where he starred for Yazoo City and averaged 17.5 points per game and 9.9 rebounds.

"When I signed that letter (of intent), I knew I was going to have to change," he said. "In high school, I didn't do so much. I'd usually just dominate, because I couldn't be stopped. But once I got in college, it was like I knew I was going to have to play against players as big as I am.

"I had to get used to it."

Cox learned quickly the demands of the next level. He was immediately thrown into the team's strength and conditioning program, his routine usually beginning with early-morning wake-up calls. He split time between an underwater treadmill and an elliptical machine.

Now he's down to 300 pounds, working towards 280 by midseason.

"I feel a lot different," he said. "When I first got here, my body was kind of tired. Now I feel like I'm getting used to the stuff we're being asked to do, because we did it so much in the summer. My body's used to it. Now I don't really worry about messing up or anything."

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