Practices and games fit into a year-round recruiting cycle. Scouting and player evaluations are seemingly never-ending. Summer break isn’t really a break at all. Coaching is life, and on and on it goes. Practice. Games. Recruiting.
Time moves fast. To borrow from Ferris Bueller, if a coach doesn’t stop and look around once in a while, he could miss it.
Just ask Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy.
“When I moved here, for me, it's season by season,” he said. “We get up and we start a recruiting period. College football has started. We get recruits in. It's a new year, same expectations. Same challenges. Same excitement in figuring out all the pieces to the puzzle that make them fit.
“What really gives me perspective now is when I moved here in 2006, my oldest daughter Meagan was entering the fourth grade. I just took her to college. Now she’s at Samford as a college freshman. That kind of puts things in perspective for me. It’s been quite a journey. Full of ups, full of downs. I'm really excited about where we are. I'm excited about the Pavilion. It really is going to be a game changer for us. And for our fans and providing a game day experience that, quite frankly, we've never had in basketball. It's going to be something I think people will be excited about.”
Kennedy is entering his 10th season at Ole Miss. Ten. In a profession where job security is relative and the shelf life of coaches has shrunk, Kennedy stands out. He's an old head. Among SEC head coaches, he's second only to Kevin Stallings in the number of years at his school.
He was hired in 2006, and he inherited a program with only seven 20-win seasons and nine postseason victories in its nearly 100 years of existence. The Rebels have seven more such seasons under Kennedy, including two NCAA Tournament trips in the last three seasons and four tournament wins.
Ole Miss was 21-13 last season, reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., after a thrilling first-round win over BYU. Kennedy believes the Rebels are well-positioned to make another run.
“When you start with the leading scorer returning in the SEC and an all-league guy in Stefan Moody, it's not a bad place to start,” Kennedy said. “We have Martavious Newby who has been a three-year starter for us and is now a senior. We've got Anthony Perez. When you pick up a piece like Tomasz Gielo, you get Terry Brutus back, those are your veterans. (Sebastian Saiz) is a junior in your program and you feel good about what he can do, and project to do. I'm also really excited about a number of our newcomers. From Sam Finley to Rasheed Brooks, who was a first team junior college All-American, and Terence Davis, who’s from right up the road in Southaven and a Top 150 recruit. We get J.T. Escobar back from a year at prep school, and that really helped his development. I think we have a lot of pieces that we're all excited about. Now it's just a matter of seeing how they all come together.
“There are still some questions as it relates to new guys until you put them in the game. You can only get so much from practice. The attitudes have been good. They’ve really worked, and we've gotten a lot done.”
Ole Miss underwent a roster reconstruction of sorts in the off-season. Gone are seniors and key pieces Jarvis Summers, Ladarius White and M.J. Rhett, as well as veteran reserves Terence Smith and Aaron Jones. Not to mention the transfers of Dwight Coleby and Roderick Lawrence.
The Rebels signed seven combined in the the fall and spring signing periods. Six made it to campus, while Donte Fitzpatrick was placed at a prep school in Florida for the semester due to academic issues. He’s expected to rejoin the team in December.
Finley, a 6-foot-2, 176-pound junior college transfer, is considered the replacement for Summers at point guard. He averaged roughly 18 points per game in leading Howard College to a second place NJCAA finish last season. He was named all-conference.
Finley played one season at UC Riverside prior to junior college, leading the Highlanders in Big West Conference play with 15.2 points per game. He led or tied the team lead in scoring six times, and was named the BWC Sixth Man of the Year by College Hoops Daily.
“Sam is a guy in that he's a little like Moody,” Kennedy said. “They're about the same size, Sam being about 6-1. Their paths are similar. These are guys that have been in Division I games prior to coming here. They had success at the Division I level, albeit at a different level than the SEC, but have been through Division I stuff before. I think that's helped Sam acclimate to this level. He's a guy that we're going to expect a lot of simply because he's walking into a situation where we have a huge void. We had a four-year starter in Jarvis who’s now gone. There’s an opportunity for him to be a leader with the ball. It's there for him. I've been impressed with his approach. He's come in, day in and day out, and he's put himself in a position to earn that right, to lead us with the ball.”
Finley wasn’t the primary ball-handler at his previous stops. However, Kennedy isn’t concerned.
“Every situation is going to be different,” he said. “Terence Davis, for instance. He probably played more power forward at Southaven than he did any other position. However, he won't play one second of power forward at this level. That's part of recruiting. We project what we feel like they’ll be able to do at this level and then try to put them into a position to where they can do that. I don't have any concerns with Sam being a lead guard, especially in the situations that we're going to put him so we can showcase his abilities. We re-invent ourselves every year. We try to recruit to a philosophy and then once we get kids, we try to read their strengths and weaknesses and put them into a position that they can be successful. This year will be no different.”
One-year graduate transfer Gielo will slide into the role vacated by Rhett, who started 31 of 34 games in his only season as a Rebel. Rhett, a stretch four, averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds. He shined in the NCAA tournament, namely in the Rebels’ win over BYU, when he totaled 20 points on 9 of 11 from the field.
Brooks, Davis and Escobar are sure to factor in as well, but the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Gielo was the real coup of the class do to need and talent. As previously noted, the Rebels are dealing with a bit of a reshuffling along their front line. Gielo only played in seven games for Liberty last season after suffering a stress fracture in his foot, but he averaged nearly 11 points and six rebounds as a junior. He knocked down better than 40 percent of his 3s over the past two seasons.
“He's very mature in his approach,” Kennedy said. “He’s a college graduate. He's played in an NCAA Tournament. Liberty won their conference tournament a couple of years ago. He's had international experience to the degree that (Saiz) has in that he's played with the Polish national team. He was going to play with them again this summer until he had the setback with the stress fracture. He's a guy that has played a lot, a lot of basketball. He's very excited about being a part of this program and having this opportunity.
“I have five guys up front that I'm pretty comfortable with. You typically have a three-man post rotation and the fourth probably isn't real happy and the fifth is looking to transfer. That's just how it is in my business. We have guys. (Saiz) is going into his junior year. He's ready to take that next step, to become an all-league caliber player. Tomas is a fifth-year guy that brings a skill set that we've really never had at that position. He's 6-9, 230-plus pounds and he can really shoot the ball from the perimeter. He's got a very high basketball IQ and a rugged physical nature to his play. And that will be beneficial to us. Anthony had a great August when he went with the Venezuelan national team. That did wonders for his confidence. He's probably had his best fall camp to this point in his time here. Marcanvis Hymon, we call him KG, he has physically developed into a player that has a Murphy Holloway-type instinct around the ball. He's going to be able to block some shots with his athleticism. He's a physical back-to-the-basket guy that can stretch out to about 15, 16 feet. And Terry Brutus is back, and he's as explosive as ever. It's the first time in two years that he's been healthy. We forget about because of his unfortunate injury situation, but he's a guy that was a catalyst for us as we made the run to win the SEC Championship a couple of years ago. He's a guy that's been in our program for four years. We're expecting those five guys to provide what we need from our front court.”
Kennedy is excited about the potential of Hymon, who redshirted last season despite playing in six games. He averaged 1.2 points, 1.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.3 steals and 8.5 minutes per game. His last appearance was against Western Kentucky in December.
“I think it helped him a lot,” Kennedy said of the redshirt. “It helped him physically, and he's much more comfortable now in year two. He understands what he has to do to be a contributor. He's a guy that brings a different skill set to the four guys.”
Of course, the most exciting development for Rebel basketball is the opening of the program’s new arena, The Pavilion at Ole Miss, in January of 2016. A multi-use facility, The Pavilion will offer a state of the art pavilion for the Rebels, a commissary open for the general public for daily use, and a parking garage to assist with campus parking.
And for Kennedy, it will open doors in recruiting that, before now, hadn't been available to him in his Ole Miss tenure.
“You make your living following through the lens of a 17, 18-year-old kid,” Kennedy said. “They’re going to compare. Now for us to have a state-of-the-art facility, new, exciting, I think it will create a game-day experience that we've never had. It shows the guys that you don't have to settle. You have everything that you need here with this basketball practice facility, with the new Pavilion, with our new university striving like no other in its history. There is a lot of excitement on this campus and a lot of things that people want to be involved with.”
Kennedy included. He might even stop and look around.