Rebel hoops team takes 6-0 mark into exams

Semester exams begin today at Ole Miss. So far this season the Ole Miss men's basketball team has graded well on the court and accomplished many of the items on its list of "to-dos" before early December. Being 6-0 was first and foremost among them.

The Rebels now leave the friendly confines of Tad Smith Coliseum unbeaten and improving. Ole Miss meets Central Florida Saturday night in Orlando.

How good are these Rebels at this point? How much have they improved from a season-opening win over Mississippi Valley State through Saturday's victory over New Mexico? That and more remains debatable.

But they've made some strides in several areas, and Andy Kennedy believes it's time to take this show on the road and test things there.

"We're still trying to mature," said Kennedy, 27-13 in his UM coaching career including a 22-1 mark at home. "I didn't want that to be a crutch for this team. I still don't want to allow that to be the case. These freshmen and sophomores are playing the majority of minutes with the ball. They've just got to grow up quickly."

Chris Warren at the point, Trevor Gaskins who started Saturday, Zach Graham who has contributed, Terrence Watson the defensive specialist currently with a turned but healing ankle, Malcolm White the big man who has shown some positive signs during some limited minutes. And David Huertas.

Huertas, the sophomore transfer from Florida, continues to try to find his rhythm, continues to try to slow things down and play within himself and with patience, continues to strive to become the player he likely will given time.

Kennedy started Gaskins instead of Huertas to try and help that situation.

"Just trying to get him out his rhythm a little bit," Kennedy said of Huertas. "Just give him a different perspective to start the game."

Warren is the team's leading scorer at 14.8 points per game. Senior center Dwayne Curtis is third at 14.0 ppg.

One player who has gone quietly the past couple of games has been sophomore Eniel Polynice, the team's second-leading scorer at 14.3 ppg. After scoring 28 points in the second game of the season against South Alabama, Polynice hasn't quite had the scoring impact he did in some earlier contests.

"His game is about versatility and about having numbers in all columns," Kennedy said. "I thought (against New Mexico) he did get a little too reliant on the perimeter. He's really good off the bounce. He's just got to make better decisions. He's a guy that has to help us in a number of areas."

Kennedy said the Rebels have improved in a number of areas.

"I still like the fact that we can get contributions from a number of guys. I like the fact that we've developed quality depth. I thought it would be difficult to play 10 guys consistently, but I think that's going to be the M.O. of the team. (Ten players are averaging double-figure minutes.) I think it's who we are. We're still struggling in a number of areas. We scored 85 points against a team giving up 54. We also missed 13 free throws and turned it over 21 times. New Mexico had a lot to do with that. Defense is one of their strengths. But if we make some free throws and do what we're supposed to do (handling the basketball), then we're right back where we are in point production."

Where they were coming into the UNM game was averaging 96 points per game. Offensive production hasn't been a problem for the Rebels.

Kennedy likes the way his big men are progressing and stepping up like the veterans they are. He thought Curtis was special on Saturday.

"Dwayne Curtis was big. That's what we need from him. We need for him to play this way," said Kennedy after the senior center scored 20 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in 33 effective minutes, going 8-for-10 from the field and being a real presence, especially offensively. "We need for him to take that next step and be an all-league caliber player. He's got to be the rock on this team.

"I thought Jermey Parnell's energy was good off the bench. Kenny Williams did some good things for us. Those three seniors led the way, and that's what they're here to do."

One area that still disturbs coaches and players is the fact that there are too many lulls in the games – from slow starts either at the start of games or at the start of second halves, or near the end of first halves. Or, like Saturday and also in an 81-78 win over South Alabama earlier, in the game's closing minutes.

Teams with as many newcomers as this one will experience those type situations. They are easier to overcome at home. Now they'll see how they handle that and more as they prepare for road game number one in 2007-08.


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