Andy Kennedy/Petre Thomas

Ole Miss basketball set to unofficially open its season Thursday night

Ole Miss basketball will kick off its season, unofficially, Thursday night.

The Rebels will play host to Morehouse at 6 p.m., a little over a week prior to their season-opener against Tennessee-Martin. And Andy Kennedy, entering his 11th season as Ole Miss head coach, likes what he has. The Rebels have real, near double-digit depth. The question is how this group, with six newcomers, will play together in a game-like situation.

Finally, Kennedy will get a better idea.

“Every year I go in with the same expectation,” Kennedy said. “I want this team to maximize its potential. I don't go and say we have to reach this number or plateau because I don't know what that is with this group yet. We’ll figure that out. I have a pretty good feel for what we are dealing with right now. But until you get in games and fans in the stands and referees and travel and adversity and all of the things that come with a season, you don't know who you are. That's what makes the game exciting.

“I know that when we are behind these closed doors and we are practicing, I have a pretty good feeling about what I am going to get every day. We are going across the street to The Pavilion and when you play in that big, nice building and you are playing against another team, different kids react different ways. Now you are adding the element of putting a uniform on, of going through a pregame meal, of going through shoot-around, of knowing when you have to be here, here is how you do things, but I want them to start getting in the behaviors of gamely. Now there will be fans in the stands. I don't know if there will be one or 1,000, or 5,000. I’m not sure. But I know that there are going to be a few there. And kids react differently when there are people in the stands. That is the next stage. I need to see, especially from our new guys, react from that and take coaching in situations like that. That is the next step for us.”

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Ole Miss recently scrimmaged against UALR. The Trojans return six of their top nine players, including three starters, off a 30-win team that reached the NCAA Tournament last season. 

The Rebels won the 40-minute scrimmage portion by 15. It was never close. They led by as much as 25 at one point, and five players — Sebastian Saiz, Deandre Burnett, Cullen Neal, Justas Furmanavicius and Terence Davis — scored double-digit points. 

“The positives were, I thought our approach was outstanding and I thought we were pretty good defensively,” Kennedy said. “We simulated in-game situations. (Little Rock) was also a group that has, I think, seven seniors. So they came in here with an expectation of battling, and they battled. They also got two and a half hours of tape that we are in the midst of going through with our team. Teaching points. For the first time for me, sometimes the offense is better and sometimes the defense is better. You don’t know if it is because they are playing each other. So, for the first time, I could concentrate on the Rebels and I thought it was very productive for us.”

Still, Kennedy hasn’t settled on a starting five yet, and don’t expect him to announce one until tipoff of UT-Martin.

“As we are getting closer, I wouldn’t say we have a concrete starting five,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say as you’re filling out your fantasy team, you can put Sebastian Saiz in there. Other than that, there are still some guys in there that are wiggling around. Obviously you want to win every game. But an exhibition game, you don't want to start off on the wrong foot and send the wrong image. But I want to get all 11 of those guys some minutes and let them put on a uniform, perform in front of fans, let them shoot the ball in The Pavilion, and start to simulate some game stuff, because the following Friday, it is for real. That is when we are going to start tightening on our rotation.”

Ole Miss was 20-14 last season and missed the postseason altogether for just the second time under Kennedy. The Rebels have reached the NCAA Tournament in two of the last four seasons.

“I like them,” Kennedy said. “But my wife says, ‘You always like them in October.’ Get back to me in February. I like them. I like great kids. That’s cliché, but I have a good group of guys. They work hard. They are competing and I like their approach. Do we have to figure some things out? Absolutely. But I like where we are on October 31st.”

TYREE COMING ALONG

Kennedy isn’t saying freshman Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree is the next Russell Westbrook, one of the NBA’s best and most-recognizable players.

But Kennedy does see a little Westbrook — at least in his “savage intensity” — in him.

The 6-foot-2, 192-pound Tyree out of Somerset, N.J., tore his ACL in April, which required surgery. However, Tyree was cleared for running in August, and he was cleared in full roughly 10 days ago, well ahead of his December return schedule.

Kennedy is being cautious with Tyree, though he’s pushing him to stop thinking about the knee during practices and games in an effort to get Tyree to play more freely. And when he has, well, he’s certainly impressed.

Breein Tyree/File Photo

“I'm not real patient with him,” Kennedy said. “He's recovering from an ACL injury and he's never played college basketball before. Those are two dynamics in of themselves. I want him now to stop thinking about the knee. I want him in basketball shape. I want him to understand that pace of play at the SEC level, and then let’s go. I love his approach. Athletically, he is special. He does not have that burst right now that allows him to be in an SEC gym are a little gun-shy. They will immediately say they are not near 100 percent or that they aren't ready yet. He hasn't done that at all. I bet he has had his shot blocked more in the past 10 days than the previous 10 years. But he keeps coming.”

Kennedy said Tyree is moving well laterally, but his explosiveness vertically and speed-wise remains a work in progress. 

Tyree averaged 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game as a senior for national powerhouse St. Joseph’s as a high school senior a year ago. He knocked down 46 3-pointers and posted 66 steals en route to first team all-conference and second team all-state honors.

“He jumps off the page the way he attacks,” Kennedy said. “I don't know if that is who he is going to be in a few months, but that is who he is. I have never had a guard like him here. He is not as vertically gifted as (Stefan) Moody, and Moody was cat quick. But he is bigger, stronger off the bounce, more versatile in the things that he can do, and off one leg, he’s as good as anyone as we’ve had prior to the injury. I don't have any doubt that’s going to come back. He's not going to be back by Thursday, but he’ll be back.”

FINDING ‘THE GUY’

Last season, when Ole Miss needed a shot, everyone in the building knew the ball was going to Stefan Moody.

In previous years, that guy was Marshall Henderson. Or Chris Warren. Or Clarence Sanders. Kennedy doesn’t know who ‘the guy’ is for Ole Miss in 2016-17, but he fully expects someone to emerge, and he has no shortage of candidates.

“At the end of the day, for years now, when things got hard, I always knew where we were going with the ball,” he said. “Right now, I don't know. I know where I want to go with it. But until we do it against UT-Martin and against UMass and then do it for three games and four days, and come back and play on Thanksgiving day, and then probably from there, six games from there, if we need a basket, you will all know what we are about to do. 

“Sebastian is going to be our anchor initially, but I don't want to suddenly put him in a position to where I need him to be an 18-point guy. That’s not who he is. He needs to be a double-double guy. I think he has a chance to do that. Deandre Burnette, I've made no bones about that the kid can score at all three levels and he can be a volume guy for us despite him never scoring a point for us yet. But I think he’s a guy that can do it. Justas Furmanavicius is different than any guy I’ve had at his position. We’ve had power forwards that were rough and rugged. We’ve had power forwards that can stretch. He’s a hybrid of all of that because of his motor and because of his ability to guard multiple positions. It gives us flexibility defensively. He’s a sneaky guy that isn't a volume guy, but he can make opportune shots. You’ll see his motor and fall in love with him because he plays hard all the time. So he gives me different options. I'm interested to see Cullen. I'm just now figuring out where Cullen is the most comfortable. I'm figuring out what are the actions I can do to give him angles. So we’re still a work in progress.”


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