Moving Forward

Andy Kennedy leaned against a wall in the home locker room of the Sprint Center in Kansas City, his team's run in the NCAA tournament over.

Follow SpiritBen on Twitter

The finality of what had occurred, a season-ending, two-point loss to La Salle in the third round of the NCAA tournament, had set in. Still, he couldn't help but crack a smile or two.

"Everybody wrote us off for dead," he said, "and this group rallied and made an outstanding run."

The loss was hard to take for all involved. Marshall Henderson cried. Murphy Holloway, after taking his turn at the postgame podium, entered the locker room and immediately headed for the showers, opting for no more interviews. He was talked out. Jarvis Summers kept to the training room.

Everyone handles disappointment differently. But Ole Miss, despite the loss to La Salle, had plenty to be proud of.

"You are what your numbers say you are, and the numbers speak loud and clear of what this team accomplished," Kennedy said. "For that, they should be extremely proud."

The Rebels could have folded after a disappointing loss at Mississippi State three weeks ago. They were written off by many - this writer included, unfortunately - but rallied to win six straight games, including an SEC tournament championship, their first since 1981.

They reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years. And when they got there, as a No. 12 seed, they upset No. 5 seed Wisconsin.

Ladarius White
USA TODAY images

"I believe next year will be even better than this year, if we all just come along and take upon our role and work hard this summer," rising junior guard LaDarius "Snoop" White said. "We're going to be just as good next year."

Ole Miss held a five-point lead late in the second half against La Salle, but fell short of the Sweet Sixteen after Explorer guard Tyrone Garland was good on a lay-up with 2.5 seconds left.

Final: La Salle 76, Ole Miss 74.

In the end, the Rebels finished with 27 wins to nine losses, those 27 wins tying a school record for most in a season.

A season to build on, Kennedy acknowledged, a grin on his face.

"We've been very close," to making the NCAA tournament, Kennedy said. "This year, we were able to cross over the threshold, and in the process of doing so, we captured an SEC tournament championship, which doesn't happen every day.

"With that, I think the expectation has been raised, internally, with the guys who will be returning in this locker room."

Gone are Nick Williams, Holloway and Reggie Buckner. Holloway and Buckner ended their respective careers as two of the most accomplished players in Ole Miss history, while Kennedy has described Williams as the "heart and soul" of the team.

Holloway finished his career as the 21st player in SEC history with at least 1,400 points and 1,000 rebounds. He's also Ole Miss' all-time rebounding leader. Buckner? He only holds the Ole Miss record for blocks, and is among the all-time conference leaders, too.

Demarco Cox and Aaron Jones, both injured this season, will be called upon to help soften the blow of losing Holloway and Buckner. And there is help on the way in highly-regarded front-court signees Dwight Coleby of Piney Woods, Miss., and Sebastian Saiz of Bel Aire, Kan.

Cox suffered a stress fracture in his foot in the summer. He played in only seven games, and none after Dec. 23, after the stress fracture failed to fully heal. He is expected to be eligible for a medical redshirt. He would have two years of eligibility remaining.

"He's not healing at the pace that we would have hoped," Kennedy said of Cox. "I think they're going to re-evaluate that now that the season is over."

Jones was the Rebels' top front-court reserve before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee against Kentucky. He was averaging 3.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in 16.0 minutes per game prior to injury.

Aaron Jones
USA TODAY images

"A.J.'s doing great. It's just a matter of time, and now he has time," Kennedy said. "I don't anticipate either one of them having anything long term, but obviously they have to go through the rehabilitative process."

With the trio of Williams, Holloway and Buckner no longer around, the 6-foot-8, 272-pound Cox assumes the role of team veteran. He's logged the most years of any player left on the roster, having signed with Ole Miss in 2010.

It's his time to lead, according to Kennedy.

"He's been around," Kennedy said. "He's a guy that we're going to be relying on to give us leadership in the off-season, as is A.J., once he's able to physically."

Ole Miss, should there be no defections, would return a solid core of Henderson, Summers and White in 2013-14. Now-sophomores Derrick Millinghaus, Anthony Perez and Terry Brutus logged valuable time, as well, while Martavious Newby saw some action early, though his playing time was drastically reduced by the end of the year.

"They've got a bright future," Williams said. "I'm looking for Jarvis to make that next step. You know what you get with Marshall; he's probably going to lead the SEC in scoring next year. Snoop is great, and they've got a bunch of young guys. A.J. gets back and Demarco. They've got the pieces to make a run next year, it's just about chemistry and guys wanting to get there again."

All eyes this off-season will be on Henderson, who led the SEC in scoring, and whether or not he returns for what would be his senior season.

"It's a crazy world out there," he said after the loss to La Salle. "You never know what's going to happen."

Most of the time on Sunday, Henderson sounded like a player planning to return. Regardless, Henderson was dynamic in his debut season, setting the NCAA single-season record for 3-point attempts (394) and also the SEC mark for 3s made in a season with 141.

He scored at least 20 points for the 18th time against La Salle.

"Being a senior, going into my senior year, I know that a lot of seniors always have that senior work ethic in the off-season," Henderson said. "Now I know the things I really need to work on. I'm almost there, being a professional player. So, can't hold anything back.

"In that sense, I'm kind of looking forward to the off-season."

As is Kennedy, in a way. "Time," he said, "has a way of healing." Because while their stay in the NCAA tournament was cut short, the Rebels finally dusted off their dancing shoes, dormant since 2002.

There's momentum yet.

"It's difficult to put in perspective right now," said Kennedy. "But I'm proud of what this team accomplished."

OM Spirit Top Stories