Back to the Bench

The walls of Bill Armstrong's office are relatively bare, only his shelves properly organized a month into his new job as an assistant coach on the staff of Ole Miss head basketball coach Andy Kennedy.

He has had little time to decorate. Both his cell and office phones ring constantly. Recruiting trips. Scouting reports. His obligations are much different than his last five years, when Armstrong served as the team's coordinator of basketball operations.

"The experience that I've always wanted was to be an assistant and to work for Coach Kennedy at the highest level, and that's the opportunity I've been given," he said. "I can't express the excitement and joy that I had when I was told that I was going to get to move up from operations to assistant. It was like, all right, I'm ready, it's time now. I'm ready to do my best to contribute to this team and the program."

Kennedy promoted Armstrong to the bench in April
Bruce Newman
Armstrong was one of two hires announced by Kennedy last month, with another still left open following the departure of Owen Miller. Armstrong has moved into the office once occupied by Michael White, who was named the head coach at Louisiana Tech. And, as White did, Armstrong will coach the Ole Miss guards.

The office suits him, as does his coaching responsibilities. Armstrong was a four-year letterman at UAB from 1998-2001. He was team captain as a senior, and helped lead the Blazers to the NCAA Tournament in 1999.

"Being able to work with Coach Kennedy for the last five years and knowing how he operates, that definitely is going to help me make that transition," Armstrong said.

"I know what's expected, I know how things run, I know all the guys, whereas if you go to a different school and you become an assistant, you're trying to figure out what the head coach wants, how to establish relationships with the players so that they trust you. I think all that's already been formed. Now I can come in and dig right in and get to work. I don't have to worry about those things day in and day out."

When Armstrong speaks, leaning back in the swivel chair of his office settled nicely behind his wrap-around desk, he exudes confidence. Again, this is the opportunity he has been waiting for -- to serve as an assistant at the highest level in the Southeastern Conference.

He understands what is being asked of him. Armstrong previously coached as an assistant for three years at Birmingham-Southern. And while this is much, much different, the stakes far higher, solace is found in his familiarity with his head coach, and also in the players now under his watch.

"In the position that I was in, I think (the players) always looked at me as coach," Armstrong said. "I was always treated by Coach Kennedy and the staff as another coach. Obviously I couldn't coach them from a basketball standpoint, but I was more of a life coach with them. I don't think they look at me as Bill; I think they look at me as one of their coaches.

"Obviously I'm going to have to prove to them that I know as much as the previous coaches did that were trying to teach them the game of basketball. I definitely have that to prove. But I think as far as the respect, I think I have that from these guys."

Ole Miss finished 20-14 a year ago, losing guards Chris Warren and Zach Graham -- two of the most productive players in school history -- to graduation. Armstrong said he will miss them as much, if not more, than anyone else. But he has confidence in the players returning.

Nelson is one of a handful of guards Armstrong will rely on next season
Bruce Newman
"It's not burdensome. I have much confidence in these guys, and I think that we'll work together and they'll be able to do the job," he said. "That being said, nobody misses Chris and Zach more than I do. Those are probably my two favorite kids that I've ever been around. They'll never be forgotten in Ole Miss basketball for the many, many accomplishments that they had.

"But I do feel confident that these guys can step in. I know that they'll be under a microscope, because everybody wants to know who's going to replace Chris and who's going to replace Zach. I know from a talent standpoint, they'll be capable of doing that."

Dundrecous Nelson and Nick Williams are the most experienced of a backcourt also consisting of newcomers Jelan Kendrick, Marucie Aniefiok, Ladarius White and Jarvis Summers.

But Nelson, the rising sophomore started seven games last season, is the better scorer of the two. A volume scorer in the mold of Warren, Nelson averaged 7.2 points as a freshman, when he had moments of brilliance, including a 30-point outburst at Auburn.

"From the standpoint of he's the main one returning, I think that people would probably think," of Nelson as a leader, Armstrong said. "As is pretty much every year, our guys are going to come in with a fresh slate. A lot of people work hard in the offseason and get better, some don't work as hard and get passed over. It'll be a fresh slate with all our guards. All will be given a chance to prove themselves and earn that playing time, I would think.

"Because people are familiar with the rest of these guys and these newer guys, Dundrecous will be looked at as a leader amongst our guards, and we're expecting big things out of him because of the flashes he showed last year."

Ole Miss basketball has undergone drastic turnover not only with the coaching staff, but the roster. Seven players have been added since November. Two players -- Trevor Gaskins and Will Bogan -- are no longer on the team.

From the outside looking in, such movement would imply an all-in approach. But Armstrong doesn't look at it that way. Ole Miss is in search of its first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade, and the first under Kennedy.

"I don't feel it any more so than any other year, simply because as coaches, that's what we want to do every year," he said. "That's always our goal. That's what we ultimately want to do. We're going to work every bit as hard as we have in the past to accomplish that goal. Every year it's all-in. That's all we know. We're giving it our all every single year."

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