Injuries and underperformance of a few key players derailed a once-promising 2015-16 season, and the Rebels missed the postseason altogether for just the third time in 10 seasons under head coach Andy Kennedy. However, Ole Miss is but one season removed from its second NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons.
Kennedy hopes his current group has the makeup for a return.
“I like the makeup of our group,” he said. “I think it’s a little premature for even me who should and does have the best feel of anybody as it relates to what we’re dealing with to say, ‘Hey, this is the ceiling for this group.’ I do like the pieces we have in place. I like the way that they fit together. I love our approach. It’s really what I had hoped. When you bring a little older group together, you don’t have to deal with a lot of the immature drama of inconsistency — you’re good on Tuesday, you’re terrible on Wednesday, you’re back Thursday. This group has been very consistent in their approach. If they maintain that, I feel like we have a chance to be a good basketball team.”
Kennedy likes what he has, to be sure, but he certainly wishes he had more depth.
He has only 12 scholarship players this season due to an academic hangup that prevented Tyrek Coger from attending Ole Miss, the school he was committed to for a full calendar year and signed with last November. Coger ended up at Oklahoma State in June, and a month later he tragically died from an enlarged heart. Coger collapsed following a team conditioning workout in the football stadium in extreme heat.
Losing Coger unexpectedly freed a scholarship. Drake transfer forward Dominik Olejniczak will have to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, and freshman guard Breein Tyree tore his ACL in April. The medical team of the New York Giants performed the surgery for Tyree, the nephew of former Giants wide receiver David Tyree. He has already been cleared to run, and the hope is he’ll be ready to contribute around mid-December.
All of the sudden, the Rebels are down to 10.
“It’s a different-looking team than what I think people are accustomed to seeing from us,” he said. “I do think when you look at game experience, Cullen (Neal) was at New Mexico for three years and played a major role for two of those. (Deandre Burnett) was at Miami for two years, played a major role for one of those. They’ve been around college basketball, they’ve been in games, even if they haven’t been in games for Ole Miss.
“That coupled with the three international guys I brought in new this year — one being Dom, who has a lot of international experience with his Polish team. Played at Drake. Even though he has to sit out, he has just a more mature approach than you would typically get out of a high school senior. Same thing with Justas (Furmanavicius) and the same with Karlis (Silins), just because when you go through the high school system in Europe, you’re exposed to the club experience through the international teams. You’re exposed to more basketball. That’s the reason I believe this team has the chance to possibly take steps quicker than a normal group that’s just getting prospects from the traditional way, which is high school or junior college. These kids have played more basketball.”
In an ideal world, and with the full benefit of 13 scholarship players, Kennedy would typically roster seven perimeter players and six in his front court. Kennedy utilizes a three-guard, two-forward lineup, which allows for more versatility in roster construction compared to traditional center-reliant sets.
That versatility is what will, should things fall right, allow Kennedy to work around the somewhat lacking overall numbers. Furmanavicius is a multi-dimensional signee who has the range to play the three in bigger lineups but can move to the four when Kennedy aims to stretch the floor and take advantage of spacing through his preferred up-tempo style of offense.
“A lot like South Carolina did last year with Michael Carrera,” Kennedy said of Furmanavicius' usage. “For the most part of his career at South Carolina, he was an undersized four. He evolved into, this year, playing more of a three. We think Justas can do some of that, which would alleviate that issue.
“I like where we are. I like the fact that we have some front court depth. We’ve got some more size in the program. Last year, when you looked out there at our team, you saw (Sebastian Saiz) and he was by far the biggest guy. He was 6-foot-9, he was 245 pounds. He was the biggest presence. Now when you look out there, you see other bodies bigger than Sebas, which tells you from a front court standpoint you’ve got more size at the basket. I think we’ve got experience in our back court, although it’s not experience in an Ole Miss uniform.”
It’s been a while since Kennedy’s No. 1 scoring option was in the post. In the previous two seasons, Stefan Moody accounted for the majority of the point production. Marshall Henderson carried the load in the two years before him, Chris Warren before him and so on and so forth.
Burnett has long been expected to do the same. But Saiz, the senior leader and team captain, might have something to say about that. He enters his senior season with 599 career rebounds and nine career double-doubles. He’s the second-leading returning rebounded in the SEC.
Dwayne Curtis graduated a decade ago. No front-court Rebel has come close to duplicating his overall production. Curtis finished as the school’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage and amassed the sixth-most rebounds and 18th-most points in program history in his three seasons at Ole Miss.
“I think Sebas is a guy that we all are comfortable that we can go through him more frequently than we have in the past,” Kennedy said. “When D.C. was here his first year, I think Clarence Sanders and Bam Doyne were our leaders in scoring, and D.C. was a guy that as also a double-figure guy, but wasn’t necessary the primary option. In year two when those three seniors left, we had Chris Warren, Zach (Graham), Trevor (Gaskins) and that crew. D.C. was a primary option. He may have led us in scoring; I can’t remember if it was him or Chris. But we were going through him in the low post.
“I think this year Sebas is capable of doing that, really for the first time in his tenure here. We went through him last year, but I think we’ll see a lot more of that this year. And we’re still trying to figure out what’s in the best interest of ‘Dre and what’s in the best interest of Cullen. Rasheed Brooks was a guy who was a third option for us last year. Now we have a better understanding of his comfort zone. We’re figuring out, really, the strengths and weaknesses of this group. But I do know Sebas is going to be a real focal point for us going into the season.”
Brooks has been a pleasant surprise in practices after an up-and-down debut season.
He played in all 32 games with 25 starts as a junior, averaging 9.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.5 steals and 27.4 minutes per game. But he shot just 38.7 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from 3, and he oftentimes disappeared in games, failing to make any type of meaningful impact.
Kennedy said Brooks’ approach has been second to none.
“Through the summer and through the first few weeks here for us, the most vocal leader on the floor has been Rasheed Brooks,” he said. “He is a senior, he’s a guy that now has a much better understanding in year two than he did last year, and he had his moments for us. But he was inconsistent, which is typically what you expect out of a new guy in your program. He was a bit inconsistent, and he would be the first to admit that. But this year his approach has been tremendous. He’s really tried to help these new guys overall, and I’ve been really proud of his development.
“(Marcanvis Hymon) was a guy last year who we really didn’t know because he didn’t play as a freshman. We really didn’t know what to anticipate. He had some really good moments for us early. He was in a complimentary role, and then you look up and unfortunately Sebas goes down. (Hymon’s) thrust into a starting role in SEC play where we’re dependent upon him for 30 minutes a night. He had some success. As a result of that, I think he’s much more confident into his second full year of being able to play.”
But, in the end, the success or failure of this Ole Miss team will come down to how the old mixes with the new. Kennedy completely overhauled his roster in each of the last three offseasons. This time around he added six new players.
“A lot of early playing time is dictated by roster makeup and who’s going to have the most opportunity based on who’s in their position or what they can bring to the table vs. what you already have on your team,” Kennedy said. “I think people are going to be shocked when they lay eyes on Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, who was not here for half of last season because of the academic issue. He didn’t get to the program until December. Now he’s been around a full offseason. Physically, he looks great. He’s gained good weight. He’s playing much stronger. He looks like an SEC player now, as opposed to last year when you said, ‘OK, that kid’s a freshman.’ Now he’s really developed physically. Terence Davis, last year, had a limited opportunity based on the fact that he was playing behind, ultimately, two seniors in (Martavious) Newby and Anthony (Perez). Rasheed brought an element T.D. didn’t bring, therefore he got more opportunity. But T.D. goes from a guy who played four, five or six minutes a game last year, to a guy that could play a majority of the game based on his development physically, based on his understanding and based on the opportunity.
“And then I think people are going to really, really like all of our newcomers. Justas is a kid that I think it going to have a chance to make an immediate impact on the program. His approach is off the charts. He’s got a warrior mentality. Every day he brings it. He’s got a versatility to his game that I think is going to really allow us to do different things with him and play different ways when he’s on the court. Karlis is a kid that really flew under the radar. He’s a kid that’s never played any American basketball. He didn’t play high school here, he’s never been on the AAU scene. No one knows who he is. But from his two-plus weeks now in America, I believe that he would be a top-100 player in the country if he had played in the American system. He’s legitimately 6-foot-10, he’s legitimately 240 pounds, he’s got a toughness, he’s got an athleticism and he’s got a skill-set that he’s going to come in and have a chance to really make an impact immediately. And Nate is a guy that was first team All-State in Texas for two years, he’s a top-150 guy, he’s a guy that because of his ability to block shots, is the perfect compliment to Karlis and Sebas and to (Hymon) and to some of the other guys we have along our front line. And then the most highly-touted of them all has been Breein, and again, unfortunately for him, he has not been able to participate in team activities yet. But he’s a guy, physically, that is going to have a chance from day one because he’s ready. He’s a big, strong, athletic guard that once he gets his feet on the ground, I think he has a chance. So we’re really excited about all the guys, and they’ve all done what we’ve anticipated them doing.”