Ole Miss wrapped up the fourth-winningest men's basketball season in its history with a thud at Clemson in the NIT's second round. It wasn't the way anybody wanted it to end, especially not for three seniors who can be credited with helping turn things back in a winning direction for the program.
What Todd Abernethy, Bam Doyne, and Clarence Sanders did this season was remarkable. The way they led their team all year was precisely the way Andy Kennedy wanted them to do so.
"Take ownership of the team," is the way the first-year UM head coach put it to them often before the season started. "We'll go as far as you take us."
They responded and it showed. Todd's ball-handling, shooting, and turning into the floor general he always could become were significant. Credit Kennedy for bringing all that out in him.
Todd had to be coaxed to shoot, at times demanded that he shoot. When he did, he made a lot of shots. Todd had a season he'll remember forever.
The players talked about freedom from day one. They liked the fact that things would be up-tempo, and if they fired one up they were usually told to keep firing.
Bam Doyne? Same as Todd. Got a little freedom this year to be himself and to play, usually, within what the team was trying to do. Bam is an emotional guy. We never knew what type answer we were going to get from any question we asked him. But we always got something, Bam Doyne style.
When Bam looks back, he'll likely appreciate this year even more than he does now.
Clarence Sanders. I've said it for weeks. There's never been a player quite like him here.
"When he puts it up and kicks that leg," Kennedy smiled and said after the Rebels beat Auburn for the SEC West title a couple of weeks back, "we always have a chance."
The last few minutes of the home wins against LSU and Auburn won't be forgotten here for a long time. Those two games, along with the other 14 home wins including an NIT victory against Appalachian State, will sell quite a few more season tickets for next year. Fans are coming back. It was too much fun in the Tad Pad to miss out.
So Kennedy's first season at Ole Miss ends just like his season as the interim head coach at Cincinnati last year – with a 21-13 record and a loss in the NIT to a team from South Carolina. After USC ended the Bearcats' run in the tourney last spring, Kennedy was Oxford bound within days.
As a matter of fact it will be one year ago this Friday that his initial press conference was held in Tad Smith Coliseum. The Rebels were playing Alabama in baseball, just like they'll be doing this weekend.
Several hundred fans, supporters, and school officials sat in the stands and listened to Kennedy talk about what he was going to do at Ole Miss in basketball. Few expected the kind of season they got in year one.
Will year two be as good? That's what we'll wonder for months now. That, along with many other questions.
Three seniors are gone and five players have either signed or committed. Kevin Cantinol (6-9, 240, center), Zach Graham (6-5, 190, guard), and Chris Warren (5-11, 165, point guard) have signed. Committed so far are Trevor Gaskins (6-2, 200, point guard) and Wesley Jones (6-8, 200, forward). All are high school seniors except Jones who is at Pearl River CC. There may be others but that's it for now.
And 6-5 guard David Huertas has been practicing all season after transferring from Florida and sitting out. From the looks of things, he will be a terrific addition to the team in 2007-08.
So who won't return besides the three seniors? The four juniors who play should return. The big three along the front – Dwayne Curtis, Kenny Williams, and Jermey Parnell – will be seniors, as well as guard Brian Smith. At this point it's a guess on anybody else. That will be something that'll have to play itself out.
Certainly Xavier Hansbro and Trey Hampton didn't get extensive minutes this season. Of the three freshmen, the most court time was seen by Eniel Polynice (34 games, eight starts). Rodney Jones (17 games, no starts) played several minutes against Clemson, and Andy Ogide (five games, one start) got little playing time this season.
So we wait, just as we did this time last year until the school year was out, to see how the roster will likely shape up for next year.
It's kind of a shame that only hours after the final horn of the season and we're already looking toward next year. What we ought to do is celebrate this winning season and postseason team for a while longer. Make sure that Todd and Bam and Clarence know their special season won't soon be forgotten. Let Kennedy, the SEC Coach of the Year, and his hard-working staff know the season was quite the start for better years ahead.
But the most important aspect of the whole thing is that we're indeed talking about next season already.
That we are actually looking ahead to 2007-08 bodes well for the future of Ole Miss men's basketball. The announcement a year ago this Friday made sure of that.
Rebs came a long way in exactly one year
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