Busting the Ceiling

Andy Kennedy never runs from the question. He knows it's out there, the one fans and media alike are inevitably going to ask when given the opportunity.

Follow SpiritBen on Twitter

* This is the second in a series of stories with Ole Miss head basketball coach Andy Kennedy, previewing the 2012-13 season.

Is this the year? The year Ole Miss finally makes it back to the NCAA tournament, that is. In his six previous seasons, a number of his teams have come close, only to fall short and settle for the National Invitation Tournament.

An NCAA tournament appearance is all that's missing from his resume. But it's a glaring omission; an omission he can't escape, not that he's trying to. The "Big Dance," as it's so often referred to, is the ultimate destination.

Promising for Kennedy, he has his most experienced team in year seven, with veterans Murphy Holloway, Reginald Buckner and Nick Williams leading the way.

"This year's team is unique," Kennedy said. "Murph's been in this program now four years. Reg's been in this program now going into his fourth year. Nick Williams. These are veteran guys. I'm not sure I've ever had guys that have played as many minutes, have had as big an impact and all are guys we're going to be relying heavily on in the upcoming season."

In his first five seasons, Kennedy's teams averaged around 76 points per game. "I think it was the highest points-per-game average in a five-year period in our program since the 70s," Kennedy said.

Still, each of those five teams failed to reach the NCAA tournament. Instead, there were four NIT appearances, two of which ended in the final four in New York.

Andy Kennedy
Associated Press

"We were scoring the ball efficiently enough, but we were lacking in other areas. Maybe we weren't quite as good defensively as we needed to be," he said.

"There were years when we didn't rebound the ball as effectively as we need to. As a result, we always seemed to be right on the outside looking in."

Those offensive numbers dipped to the high 60s last season, when Ole Miss finished 20-14 overall and was eliminated in the first round of the NIT, the second first-round NIT exit in as many seasons.

Of course, the dismissal of volume scorer Dundrecous Nelson, expected to fill the role of one of the most accomplished players in program history, Chris Warren, in February didn't help matters.

Nelson was supposed to be the team's leading scorer; a consistent double-digit threat each and every game and a weapon from the 3-point line, similar to Warren.

Instead, he was booted due to a drug-related violation (one of many) and later enrolled at Jackson State. Kennedy and staff adjusted, forming a defensive-minded team whose offensive emphasis was second-chance opportunities and timely shots.

The Rebels held opponents to just over 40 percent from the field last season, the lowest of any Kennedy-led team in any of his first six seasons, and the lowest for any Ole Miss team in the last 18 years.

To Kennedy, field goal percentage defense is the best indicator of how a team is defending.

"We feel like with this team, the pieces that we've added coupled with the guys we've got coming back, we hope that we won't be in a situation where we struggle so much to score," Kennedy said. "Last year's team was the best defensive team we've had.

"We'll still be big, we'll still be long, we'll still be versatile on the perimeter. If we can get an infusion of offense so we're again scoring in the mid-70s, coupled with the defense that we put in place last year, I feel like that this team has the opportunity to take that next step and bust through this glass ceiling that is still above us."

An improved offense starts with veterans Holloway, Buckner and Williams. They're the core, a core unlike any other for Kennedy.

The only comparable team in terms of experience was his second team, led by a veteran front line of Dwayne Curtis, Kenny Williams and Jeremy Parnell. But Williams, a junior college transfer, had only been in the program one year prior to his senior season.

Reginald Buckner
Associated Press

Kennedy said he was still in the process of trying to get all involved on the same page of how he wanted his teams to play.

"Murphy needs to take the next step to be an all-league level guy," Kennedy said. "Here's a guy who's a perennial 12 (points) and eight (rebounds) guy. We need that to go to 15 and 10. Reginald Buckner's a guy who's been around eight points, eight rebounds a game. We need that to be where he's a double-double guy night in and night out. And we all know he has the potential to do so.

"I thought Nick had a very strong junior season. He needs to continue to improve on his efficiency. We need him to be a double-figure scorer. Obviously, I think with Jarvis (Summers) and with Snoop (Ladarius White), two guys that went through the learning curve as freshmen, we expect them to be more consistent in year two. And then we're going to have to mix and match these young guys."

Kennedy often mentions two newcomers in particular: Marshall Henderson, who was named national junior college player of the year last season, and Jason Carter, formerly of Alabama.

Henderson, a 6-foot-2 guard, led South Plains College to a perfect 36-0 season, capped by a 81-68 victory over Northwest Florida State College in the NJCAA Championship game March 24. He averaged just under 20 points per game, shot around 45 percent from the floor and was good on over 42 percent of his 3-point tries.

Henderson averaged 11.8 points while earning All-Mountain West Conference honorable mention in his only season at Utah.

The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Carter averaged 15 points per game and eight rebounds for Chipola (Fla.) Community College prior to a meniscus tear in January, which ended his season. He also shot 40 percent from 3. In his only season at Alabama, he played in 16 games, scoring 1.4 points per game.

"We're excited about the pieces we brought on board," Kennedy said. "We got two kids in Marshall Henderson, the national junior college player of the year, and Jason Carter. Both those kids are 4-2-4 guys, meaning they have played in Division-I games before. They're not typical junior college kids, where they've never played at this level. We're anticipating those guys having immediate impacts."

OM Spirit Top Stories