Fast Start

Ole Miss basketball has been quick out of the gate so far this season. But a 7-1 start is not all that unusual. In four of six seasons under Andy Kennedy, the Rebels have won seven of their first eight games.

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What is more than unusual is that the Rebels are garnering some early RPI attention, which later in the season is so important to a potential NCAA Tournament bid. As of this morning, RealTimeRPI has Ole Miss at No. 10 nationally.

If the Southeastern Conference was still divided into Western and Eastern divisions for men's basketball, the Rebels would have the top RPI currently on their side of the league. As it stands, they are currently behind Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the conference.

Today the Rebels try to make it eight wins in their first nine games of 2011-12 when Mississippi Valley State takes the Tad Smith Coliseum court at 2 p.m.

"The last couple of weeks I've liked the fight in our group," Kennedy said, as his team has wins in its last four games over TCU, Miami (Fla.), DePaul, and Penn State since its lone setback to Marquette. "A group that has battled through some adversity, the last two (games) being on the road where momentum is on your side and then it's against you. And you've got to find a way to climb uphill down the stretch where your margin for error is nil."

Kennedy said his players, individually and as a group, have stepped up when it was needed most. And that has been a key to the continued fast start for this year's team.

"We've had guys make plays down the stretch which has enabled us to win some important games," he said. "What it does is when your team is in that situation again, which it inevitably will be throughout the course of the season, you have a reference point that we can still fight our way out of it. That's the most positive."

On the flip side of things, the Delta Devils limp in at 1-7, their lone victory against Tennessee State in double overtime. But they are a battle-tested bunch.

Valley State has faced as tough a schedule as any team in the country. For the most part MVSU has been competitive in losses to North Carolina, South Carolina, Notre Dame, DePaul, Arkansas, and Northwestern.

Following their game against Ole Miss, the Devils don't shy away from competition with tough games against Florida, Wisconsin, and Iowa State. Heading into SWAC competition, no doubt they'll be seasoned for league play.

As for the Rebels, true freshman guard Jarvis Summers from Jackson continues to impress in his initial season of college basketball. The last time out on the road at Penn State, the Provine product poured in 27 points to pave the way for the Rebels.

"Early in the season I knew Jarvis was mature in his approach, that he was a guy we could trust with the ball in his hands," Kennedy said. "I didn't know that in his fourth collegiate start on the road against a Big Ten opponent he would step up down the stretch and really carry us offensively by making play after play on the offensive end. I didn't know he was ready for that.

Nick Williams
Bruce Newman

"Honestly it's what the team needed. So it's what he did, and that's the kind of player that he is. He continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and he's going to be a tremendous player for us."

Junior guard Nick Williams has been arguably the team's most improved player through the first eight games. Kennedy concurs Williams has been special.

"He's been the most consistent guy, I think, to this point," Kennedy said. "He's a glue guy for us, a fourth-year junior who has been through it. You never have to question his approach or his attitude or his energy. He's a kid that's put in a lot of time, and I'm glad to see him rewarded for it. We've also given him the chore game in and game out to guard the best perimeter player on the opponent's team. So we've asked a lot of him."

Williams agreed with Kennedy about his consistency and the importance of it.

"I feel like for us to win, I have to be consistent," said Williams, who transferred to Ole Miss after his freshman season at Indiana, sat out a year, and played for the Rebels last season. "But everybody has to be consistent for us to win. We just have to put the work in, and we've been getting rewarded for that."

Williams said there is nothing like success to breed more success.

"Confidence does wonders. I'm feeling really confident right now," he said.

Kennedy is pleased that the Rebels' shooting has been better lately. It's one aspect that has helped Ole Miss win its first home game ever against an ACC foe (Miami), its first win against a Big East opponent on the road (DePaul), and its first road win at a Big Ten school (Penn State).

"Against Penn State, they packed it in a little bit which led to some open 3-pointers," he said. "For the first time all season we stepped up and knocked those down at a pretty high percentage, which is what was needed.

"This team has really struggled from the free throw line. I know we're better than 55 percent, which is where we're currently sitting. Hopefully that'll change soon. I know that we're better than a 25 percent 3-point shooting team, but that's what the stats have said through eight games. We've really struggled. Hopefully the last game against Penn State is an impetus to show that we are capable, which will open the floor and allow us to get it to the basket.

"But we are fairly athletic at the two, three, and four," Kennedy continued, "which allows us to attack the basket when it's there. We certainly wanted to attack, based on the fact that we had struggled so much. And we didn't want to settle."

Kennedy said the way the competition played his team defensively also was a factor.

"Some of that was the first couple of teams we played (this season) played us a lot of zone. And when people play you zone, you've got to make some outside shots. DePaul was a good opponent in which to attack. Even TCU was a pressing team which allowed us to get at the basket more. I think our guys realized we needed to attack more inside out and let the 3 come to us. And that's what we've tried to do."

It is still uncertain whether or not redshirt freshman guard Jelan Kendrick and true freshman guard LaDarius White will be able to play today, or if it might be Wednesday night against Louisiana-Lafayette before they take the court.

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