Andy Kennedy/Josh McCoy

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said his Rebels are excited to take on the 'gold standard' of college basketball

Ole Miss opens SEC play Thursday against Kentucky. Head coach Andy Kennedy previewed the Wildcats and more Tuesday morning.

On where he believes the team is heading into SEC play: “We’re starting to get a better understanding of who we are and the way we have to play in order to have a chance to be successful. I think we’ve shored up some things defensively, which has helped us. Some of our rotations and some of the different things we’ve tried to do personnel-wise, we’re still trying to figure out the right combinations. Certain guys are better with certain guys on the floor to take advantage of strengths and weaknesses. But at 9-3 heading into SEC play, I feel like we’re probably about where we deserve to be.”

On the team’s position despite a roster filled with new players: “I was probably a little overoptimistic, initially, thinking the transition of blending the old with the new would come about more easily than it has. Deandre Burnett and Cullen Neal, probably, most specifically — guys that are veteran players in my eyes having been around the college game for a number of years. However, they’re new to Ole Miss and they’re new to this set of circumstances, and with that is going to come a little bit of a transition. Then you couple that with a guy in Justas (Furmanavicius) who’s new to this situation, a guy like Terence Davis who went from, literally, not playing last year to playing an prominent role in our rotation. Those things take a little more time than I probably was expecting. I’ve tried to make some adjustments to help them ease into this, but now as you look at an SEC opener against a powerful Kentucky team in 48 hours, we’ve got to be ready for what the challenge is moving forward.”

On the strength of the SEC: “I think that it just provides more opportunities for all of us. As we head into the league opener, not only do we have the 18 league games, but sitting here today, we’ve got 10 of our 14 league teams that are rated in the Top 100 NCAA RPI and five in the Top 50, which I think is third-most of any conference in the country. Twelve of the 14 have a strength of schedule in the Top 150. Kentucky’s sitting at 10 in the RPI with a strength of schedule of 6. We’re sitting at 33 in the RPI with a strength of schedule of 31. I think it lends to more opportunities for all of us moving forward. I think that was the premise by which the league  started really looking hard at non-conference schedules so as we enter league play, league games are only helping one another (and) not hurting one another. Not only do we have the 18 league games, but we also have Baylor in the Big 12 Challenge coming in late-January, and they’re a Top 10 team in the country. There’s a number of opportunities. For us, we’ve got to get better so we can take advantage of some of those.”

On his impressions of Kentucky: “Another outstanding team, a team that’s going to be in the conversation for the Final Four, and readily so, throughout the season. It’s amazing to me what (John Calipari) is able to do year in and year out of taking a bunch of new guys and defining them into the role of a team, and an outstanding team. He’s done that again this year. The thing that jumps off the page when you see Kentucky and when you see them in live action is their team speed. This is my 11th year, so I’ve see a lot of great Kentucky teams and a lot of great Kentucky players. I don’t know if I’ve seen one as fast as this team. De’Aaron Fox, I don’t remember seeing. He’s a Texas kid, and unless I was recruiting someone on his AAU team, I don’t know a reason I would have seen him other than happenstance. I didn’t really study his game until he got to Kentucky. He just jumps off the screen with his speed in the open floor with the ball. If you’re fast on tape, that means you’re going to be doubly fast in person. De’Aaron Fox’s speed and the way Malik Monk has shot the ball and Bam’s (Adebayo) strength inside, they just got a plethora of weapons.”

On limiting turnovers: “It’s always important for us. Live-ball turnovers are critical at this juncture of the season. We’ve had problems with it, quite frankly. Typically our teams will have one or two guys dominate the ball, whether it be Stefan Moody or Jarvis Summers or, back in the day, Chris Warren, which was the last time we beat Kentucky, when Chris Warren hit the shot here back many years ago. We’ve typically had guards that we’ve allowed to dominate the ball and quarterback us and get it to where we want to go. This year our team is built differently. As a result, we’ve got more guys touching it, and as a result we’re turning it over more. That’s something I’m very conscious of and trying to remedy, but until we have some guys offensively step up where we can feel comfortable with the ball in their hands and the decision-making process throughout the course of a game, we’ll continue to have to find a way. We have turned the ball over too much. That’s a recipe for disaster on Thursday night.”

On drawing Kentucky to open SEC play for the third-straight season: “Just clean living, I suppose. Just karma coming back to me. At least this time when I got the schedule I texted Cal, ‘Man, you must have really pissed off somebody in the league office because they finally sent you back to Oxford.’ I don’t know. I don’t get too caught up in things I can’t control. I know, preferably, my Christmas afternoon would have been a little more pleasant if I wasn’t staring at Big Blue in 72 hours. I started focusing on them just after the last present was opened. Now we get a big present on Thursday. I know that our guys came back excited because Kentucky brings that — SEC opener, national TV against one of the best teams in the country. The program by which you judge all others. They’re the gold standard. It’s an exciting way to open, but obviously very, very difficult because they’re so good again.”

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