Learning Experience

The gym was nothing better than high-school quality. Goats crossed the street. The age of opponents ranged from 15 to 35. There was no way of knowing, really.

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But a trip to the Bahamas for Ole Miss basketball, a team with five new additions, including four upperclassmen, was well worth it, according to Rebel head coach Andy Kennedy.

The Rebels played in two games, winning both, in their Bahamas exhibition tour. NCAA men’s basketball teams are allowed to go on a foreign tournament every four years. Ole Miss was among a number of high-major teams to head to the Bahamas this month, joining Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Ohio State and others.

“This really worked out for us, simply because of the way our roster has transformed,” Kennedy said. “It was great for us to be able to practice, to be able to go and be together for five, six days in a foreign environment, which forces you to bond as a team.

“Today, with technology the way it is, kids don’t talk; they don’t interact the way they used to. This forced us to really interact and we dealt with some real adversity as it related to dealing with different rules. You had to play FIBA rules, unless you’re Kentucky and take your own refs. We had to play FIBA rules because that’s what they knew. You have to make adjustments. The flow of the game was bad; they blatantly cheat you. It was great for us because we had to deal with some adversity and it was kind of an us-versus-them mentality. There were a lot of positives from the trip.”

The opposing teams – the Providence Storms and South Side Bulls – were a mix of professionals, former college players and native Bahamians. Ole Miss won game one Aug. 4, 92-81, and followed in its finale Aug. 6 with a 90-51 win.

Ole Miss guard Jarvis Summers.

“The biggest battle is making sure you tip on time,” Kennedy said. “You got to make sure everybody’s there. You get there, goats are running across the road. A bus to us is different to a bus for them. How do you get your stuff over there? Everything’s running crazily.

“You get over there, it’s like a high school gym. These guys put shirts on, you don’t know. There’s guys 15, 16 and some guys who are 35. Some guys come in with a cigarette in their mouth and they’re hooping. You just kind of deal with whatever.”

The second night of the trip, Ole Miss and Pittsburgh played a double-header as a promotion to bring fans to the gym. Ole Miss played the second game of the night.

“We saw guys take one shirt off, put another one on and just go back and play us. There’s just a bunch of different groups. You never really knew what you were going to get,” Kennedy said.

Still, the games were a learning experience. Ole Miss had 10 practices prior to the Bahamas. The Rebels will reconvene in preparation for the start of the 2014 season later this month.

Ole Miss opens the season at home against Charleston Southern No. 14.

“I treated it as an exhibition game in that obviously you want to win, but I played all 12 guys,” Kennedy said. “All of them averaged double-figure minutes. It was very beneficial to see us in game action. We were able to put in some offensive and defensive stuff that we feel like we can build on, tweak. It was good for us.”

Kennedy's roster is significantly different from last season’s 19-win team that missed the postseason altogether.

Five players – guards Roderick Lawrence, Stefan Moody and Terence Smith and forwards Marcanvis Hymon and M.J. Rhett – were added, while four others, including leading scorer Marshall Henderson, are gone.

Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody.

Derrick Millinghaus transferred to Southeastern Louisiana, Demarco Cox will spend his final season at Georgia Tech and Jerron Martin left for South Plains Junior College. Janari Joesaar was the last out the door. He signed with Texas Pan-American,

“The depth of this group, the experience of this group is probably as good as I’ve had,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got five seniors. We have two fifth-year guys. I’d never done that before. Two experienced, focused guys. We then bring back a Martavious Newby and Anthony Perez who are now juniors. You then add two junior college kids who have started at the Division-I level. You’ve got a bunch of upperclassmen, a bunch of guys who’ve been through this before, and trying to mix and match and see what we have as a group was very educational to me. When we start back end of August, early September, I feel like this experience will give us a head start in preparing for the season.”

Moody scored 13 and 11 points, respectively, in exhibition play. Smith had nine points and five rebounds in game one, while Rhett grabbed nine rebounds and scored six points in game two.

But despite what would appear as a successful trip, plenty of work remains, namely team chemistry.

“It’s really important,” Kennedy said. “I’m not smart enough to know how to push all the buttons so the chemistry aligns. I think it has to evolve, it has to be owned by the team. That’s the biggest thing I’ve challenged this group with, especially the seniors. M.J. and Terence, you’re new to this situation, but you don’t have time to feel your way through. I want you to attack it with a sense of urgency that last-year guys need to play with. Snoop (White), Jarvis (Summers), A.J. (Aaron Jones) all have been good players in this program. All have been vital parts in us having success. This is it. This is the last go-round. I want you to own it. This gave us an opportunity to put that in play early.”

Bottom line, after a mid-August trip to paradise, Kennedy likes what he has.

Ole Miss forward M.J. Rhett.

“Last year, the difference in winning 20-plus games and advancing to the NCAA tournament and winning 19 games and not going to the postseason were evident to me. I felt we needed to get more athletic, I felt we needed to get stronger on our front line,” he said. “We had a rebounding deficiency that we weren’t able to overcome. We weren’t as proficient as we needed to be in a number of areas. I felt like bringing in the fifth-year guys, bringing in the JUCO guys, we filled some of those voids. We return seven of our top eight. The core of our team is back. And then you add a Stefan Moody, who will have a Marshall-like impact, honestly. Here’s a kid that really is a terrific player who brings a ‘wow’ factor from an athleticism standpoint that’s going to give us some pop in that void that Marshall left with volume shooting and volume scoring.

“Roderick Lawrence, he’s a very solid piece. I tell him all the time, and he even has to go Google it, you have to be our (Manu) Ginobli – a guy that can help us in a lot of different ways. That’s what he does. He’s athletic, he’s energetic, he can defend, he can do this, he can do that. Then you bring in two-fifth year guys. A guy like Terence Smith, who scored 1,300 points. He started a bunch of games, he’s been through college basketball and he’s been through it at a level where he’s never experienced this. This is great to him. He’s excited about being in the SEC. The same for M.J. Rhett. This is a guy who was eighth in the nation in double-doubles, led the league in rebounding. He’s never experienced this, he’s never experienced the NCAA tournament. So those guys are hungry for that. It’s been a good addition based on what we’ve been able to bring in and we’re bringing back. I feel good about our core.”

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