Embracing the Grind

NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Basketball, like any sport, is a game of adjustments. Andy Kennedy has made the greatest, albeit toughest, adjustment of his Ole Miss career this season.

Follow SpiritBen on Twitter

When Kennedy was hired six seasons ago, he sat at his opening press conference and spoke of an Ole Miss team that would score points in bunches. His teams would run. And run. And run some more. He was going to bring a fast-paced offense, a non-stop offense. His teams would push for 100 points game-in and game-out.

He laughed about it on this Friday night, in the bowels of New Orleans Arena, site of the 2012 SEC tournament. Ole Miss had finished off an all-important 77-72 win over Tennessee. The Rebels move on to face Vanderbilt in the semifinals Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

The Rebels won playing a style of basketball unlike any under Kennedy in his previous five seasons. Defense. Rebounding. Put-backs. Loose balls. Hustle. You know, the garbage stuff. That's how this Ole Miss team wins games. There's no Chris Warren to score 30 points a night; no collection of sprinters to race up and down the court.

"I knew that points were going to be a premium with this group," Kennedy said. "Therefore, we have to do a better job in those other areas, the areas that we can control. I know that's hard to do. It's going to be hard to rally and do it again tomorrow. That's physically taxing to do. But it's who we are."

Kennedy was hired to replace Rod Barnes, who led Ole Miss to its last NCAA tournament appearance a decade ago. Barnes' offenses were slow and methodical. Kennedy was hired for his up-tempo offense. Offense is what he knows.

Nick Williams
Associated Press

This team is in sharp contrast to any of his previous teams. Ole Miss can't win if it has to score 80 in a game. It can't match an opponent shot for shot.

Take its only other meeting with Vanderbilt this season Feb. 16. Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss 102-76, its leading scorers, John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor, combining for 49 points.

Ole Miss, winners of five straight and on the verge of an NCAA tournament berth, is a much different team not even a month later. Its identity is rooted in grit and grind.

"We've been trying to fight it, kinda. It's our M.O. to be a gritty team, just grind out games like Coach says all the time," guard Nick Williams said. "That's what we've been doing."

In this offense, any one player can finish as the leading scorer on a given night. Williams had a career-high 22 points against Auburn in the first round of the SEC tournament Thursday. He managed just five points Friday.

Ole Miss -- and Kennedy, too, for that matter -- has found what works. Ole Miss knows how to win, has learned how to win, because it knows how to grind and wear down its opponents.

The Rebels held Tennessee to a season low-tying 28.1 percent from the floor Friday night.

"I know how I want to play. I know how I want our program to be," Kennedy said. "But ultimately, I have to adjust based on what we have. I'm paid to win games. I have to make adjustments to put these kids in a position to be successful. That's what we had to do."

"In this little stretch we've had, Coach told us to take ownership of the team," junior forward Murphy Holloway said. "We did it. We just said we ain't giving up, man. If you're going to beat us, you're going to have to beat us. This is just going to carry over to the next year and the next year. I think we get it now. It's not easy to win. Easy to lose, hard to win. I think we got our identity. We've got to grind. We got to grind."

Ole Miss won't be scoring 100 points in a game anytime soon, not unless it faces Wossamotta U in some meaningless non-conference game. But that's OK. Actually, it's for the best.

As I wrote Thursday, this is Kennedy's best coaching job of any of his six seasons. And it starts by changing his philosophy. No longer is Ole Miss an offense-oriented team. These Rebels are going to outwork you. They're going to outlast you. They're going to wear you down.

"I think anybody that comes in and watches our team play says the strength of your team is, boy, you're big and you're pretty physical up front. So let's play to that strength," Kennedy said.

Murphy Holloway

"You've got a freshman point guard who makes molasses look fast. Even his teammates are saying, ‘C'mon, Jarvis. Go faster.' He's going as fast as he can. It's a complete overhaul."

A needed overhaul.

Ole Miss lost out on Ky Madden and Johnny O'Bryant and Andre Hollins last recruiting season. Aaron Jones and Jarvis Summers were two of the players signed in their place. Ole Miss is better off for it.

Jones and Summers are completely different players. In turn, Ole Miss is a completely different team. Ole Miss will never land McDonald's All-American after McDonald's All-American. It has to have a niche.

"It is totally different," Kennedy said. "We recruited to a system. That system had to be tweaked based on some things we learned as it related to recruiting -- who's with us, who's not with us. We had to tweak it, and we had to play to the strengths of our team."

A bold move. A risky move. But it's working.

OM Spirit Top Stories