The Next Step

Nearly 19,000 fans packed the Sprint Center for Kansas State - La Salle in the first round of the NCAA tournament in late March.

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By Andy Kennedy's estimation, maybe four of those fans were cheering for the Explorers.

He wouldn't say it then, but he'll say it now, a month removed from the conclusion of his seventh season as Ole Miss head coach. He was rooting for the No. 4 seed Wildcats.

"K-State had the building rocking," Kennedy said. "I was pulling for K-State, simply because of matchups. I knew it was going to be very difficult for us to guard La Salle off the dribble. They had a very unique team - a four-guard lineup that really put a lot of pressure on you off the bounce. So I was worried about our ability to contain that based on our conventional lineup."

His concerns were justified two days later.

La Salle, the No. 13 seed, emerged from what was virtually Manhattan, Kan., East as upset winners, downing Kansas State, 63-61, in the final minutes. The Explorers then proceeded to end the Rebels' season in the round of 32, Tyrone Garland banking home a deciding layup with two seconds left.

Ole Miss finished the year with a school-record 27 wins to only nine losses. La Salle (24-10) was eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen by Wichita State, who made it as far as the Final Four in Atlanta, Ga.

"Now that I've had a chance to reflect, I could not be more proud of the accomplishments this group was able to achieve," Kennedy said. "I think it elevates our program in a number of levels, and it sets a standard internally that now I hope our remaining players understand and continue to try to play to that standard."

Andy Kennedy
Associated Press

As tough to take as the loss to La Salle was, Kennedy, the winningest coach in Ole Miss history, finally broke through the ceiling. An NCAA tournament appearance was all that was missing from his coaching resume, one that includes six 20-plus win seasons and six postseason berths.

Ole Miss and Kennedy agreed to a contract extension - a four-year deal through 2017 - in mid-April. His new base salary, $1.8 million, is sixth among SEC head coaches, and the contract also includes incentives for SEC regular season and NCAA postseason success.

"It certainly was the elephant in the room," Kennedy said of the lack of an NCAA tournament appearance. "I understand that many times it's hard to look at the big picture when that omission is still present. I don't look at this as it's about me. I had an opportunity as a player and as an assistant coach to experience the NCAA tournament, and I wanted that so bad for our three seniors because I knew this was their last run. I wanted it to legitimize, for lack of a better term, their efforts. I was really proud for them, but also for the program that I lead.

"Now, not only did we remove that albatross, but sitting in my office, 10 feet from me, is an SEC tournament championship trophy. Those things don't happen often. They don't come around every day in any sport, at any level, most especially here as it relates to men's basketball. So I'm proud of that. It puts us in a position now that we can truly take that next step as a program and do the things that we all aspire to."

The NCAA tournament appearance was the first for the Rebels since 2002. Now, with the proverbial monkey off its back, Ole Miss begins anew, its sights set on bigger and better things.

Encouraging for Kennedy is the return of Marshall Henderson, who led the SEC in scoring, as well as veterans Jarvis Summers, Ladarius White, Aaron Jones and Demarco Cox and youngsters Anthony Perez, Derrick Millinghaus, Terry Brutus, etc., who all saw action last season.

"Obviously, there will be a lot of speculation on everybody's part moving forward as to what happens next. I know this: I know we have the SEC leading scorer (Henderson) returning on our team. We've got a big-time shot-maker. I've always said this, and you know what I'm about to say, but you always see the greatest improvements between years one and two for a player. This will be Marshall's second year, and I have no doubt that he'll be a much-improved player in a number of regards in year two.

Jarvis Summers
USA TODAY images

"We've got a kid in Jarvis Summers who's now going to be a junior. I think you really find out about how good a guy can be when he turns into a junior. Now he's physically and mentally ready to be the guy that you recruited him to be. You've also got Snoop White who falls into that category. Those are two guys who've made huge contributions to our program, two guys who were instrumental in the run we were able to have and two guys who are juniors and who've been through this a couple of years.

"You then look at the freshmen. Derrick Millinghaus, the experience he got. You guys could see the talent oozing off of Anthony Perez. Now it's a matter of getting in the weight room for the next four, five, six months and getting bigger, faster, stronger and continuing to work on his skill level. Martavious Newby, physically, now is going to be in your program a year. Terry Brutus got huge minutes and was a big contributor for us down the stretch with all the injuries."

Cox and Jones were among the injuries, with Cox requiring two surgeries in four months for a stress fracture in his foot and Jones tearing his ACL in a loss to Kentucky in January.

Kennedy believes Cox, who is likely to receive a medical redshirt, will make a full recovery. Jones, he said, is "a few weeks ahead" in his rehab because "that's how he rolls."

"Demarco Cox, here's a guy who was pressing for an elevated role coming into this season. He was ready, I believe, to physically and mentally take that next step," Kennedy said. "He comes back now as a fourth-year junior. And then Aaron Jones, and I don't have any doubt that A.J. will be back and be back to full speed. He's jumped on this rehab. He'll be back bigger, faster and stronger."

But Cox and Jones won't be the only ones called upon to replace Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, two of the most accomplished players in Ole Miss history. Holloway finished his career as the school's all-time leading rebounder. Buckner tops the Ole Miss charts in blocked shots.

On the way are 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward Sebastian Saiz of Bel Aire, Kan., and 6-foot-9, 225-pound Dwight Coleby of Piney Woods, Miss. Coleby was rated the No. 23 center in the country by

Dwight Coleby

And not to be forgotten is Saiz's teammate at Sunrise Christian Academy, 6-foot-7 wing Janari Joessar. Kennedy believes all three "are SEC ready from day one." Ole Miss is expected to sign at least one in the spring signing period, which is well underway.

"I've never been more excited about two bigs that we've signed than I am for Sebastian Saiz and Dwight Coleby," Kennedy said. "These kids are SEC ready, physically, from the day they walk on campus, as is Janari as a 6-7 wing who's going to bring us more perimeter scoring. There's obviously going to be a learning curve. There's obviously a lot of things they're going to have to learn and grow into. But these kids are SEC ready."

Ole Miss is far removed from its loss to La Salle. Yes, the bracket was set up nicely for a run had the Rebels held on to their late two-point lead against the Explorers. Kennedy felt his team even matched up well with Wichita State.

What could have been means little or nothing these days. Ole Miss basketball moves forward, and Kennedy is eager to lead the charge.

"I'm excited about where we are, I'm excited about what was accomplished and I'm excited about the future of Ole Miss basketball," he said.

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