Destination: Jackson

Ole Miss plays a home away from home game in Jackson Thursday night against Winthrop. Who is Winthrop? Let's take a look.

Just a season after Winthrop went 29-5, won the Big South Conference, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a win over Notre Dame and a loss to Oregon, the Eagles are 5-3 after their first eight games this season.

Winthrop notched a quality win over Georgia Tech (79-73) on Nov. 18 at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands but has losses at Baylor (62-54), vs. Missouri State (73-69), and at West Virginia (70-53). I am guessing Andy Kennedy has called ole pal Bob Huggins in Morgantown and asked him his thoughts on Winthrop.

The Eagles are outscoring their opponents by a slim 67 to 64 margin. Senior guard Michael Jenkins tops the team with 15.6 points per game, while senior forward Taj McCullough adds 14.1 ppg and leads the squad with 5.8 rebounds per contest. They are the only two Eagles averaging in double figures.

The Eagles have been in the NCAA Tournament the past three seasons, so they've been around the block. Actually Kennedy says his team is trying to accomplish what Winthrop has the past few seasons.

"We could have scheduled a lot of different teams in Jackson," Kennedy said. "But we scheduled a very formidable opponent in Winthrop. Some fans may look at Winthrop and roll their eyes. But they've been to the NCAA Tournament. They have what we want. We don't have what they want. They lost a couple of key players from last year's team. But they still have three senior veterans who are the core of their team. They're a very good team."

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Kennedy said his team has progressed, but there is a long way to go to get where they need to be.

"Our attention to detail has to be better," he said. "We still have so many fundamental breakdowns, and they are mental errors that we can't have. For example, calling a play and have four of five guys run the play. But that fifth one is kinda important. We can't have that. If we do have all five guys run a play correctly, maybe the ball is entered to the wrong side. If we change defense, we may have four of the five guys that change and one doesn't. Things like that. Again a lot of that is to be expected because I put a lot on these guys and they're new. But it's still frustrating."

Kennedy says they're all still learning, and he doesn't have a problem with their commitment to get better.

"I think our effort has been pretty consistent. I think on a daily basis we do compete and work hard. That is step one. Now we just have to focus more on things we can control, and that comes back to attention to detail."

Overall at 7-0, Kennedy feels the Rebels are improving. But they have to continue to move forward.

"I believe we're getting better, but it's hard for me to see it from time to time," he said. "I'm so caught up in the moment, and I obviously look at things with a critical eye. That's what coaches are supposed to do. It honestly takes me time after the game to reflect and watch the tape before I can really appreciate the things we are doing right. And we are doing a lot of things right. But there are a lot of glaring errors that are apparent to me."

So what has pleased Kennedy the most so far?

"I've been pleased with a lot of our freshmen, most especially Chris (Warren), Trevor (Gaskins), and Zach (Graham). We're asking them to do a lot and putting them in roles where we're counting on them. For the most part they've responded.

"I'm pleased we're 7-0 and scoring over 90 points per game, and yet we're still not getting the offensive productivity out of some of the guys that I was anticipating. There are some who are struggling, and we're still scoring. But that speaks to our staff for providing quality depth, which is something we needed to do in order to be successful."

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Ole Miss alum Russell Harris understands, like some of our fellow Rebels, what it means to win in basketball. Basketball has been an up and down sport at Ole Miss for years, with the most successful period a winning run in the late ‘90s and early part of the new century. But that's changing for the better again with Kennedy and company.

What Harris, as passionate about Ole Miss football and baseball as anyone, realizes is how much mileage a school can get from being good in hoops. The basketball "schools" like Kentucky and Kansas and Duke and Indiana and UCLA, to name five of the most tradition-rich names in all of college basketball, have highlights on Sports Center almost every night.

"Everybody watches Sports Center," said Harris, of Ridgeland, who along with his wife, Whitney, jumped in last week and headed up a promotions drive for the game in Jackson. "There is just so much good that comes from having a winner in basketball. From late fall through the winter and into spring, basketball is as important as any sport. And the NCAA Tournament gets so much attention. It is so important to win in basketball."

He's right, and slowly but surely Ole Miss has caught on to that. What Kennedy and his staff have done is put Ole Miss back into the eyes of the nation already. And it's just starting. There will be stumbles and setbacks and losses along the way, but the Rebel hoops program is on the right track.

So the Harrises, along with John Dubberly and Sam Farrington of the Ole Miss Central Mississippi Alumni Club, York Craig of the Rebel Club of Jackson, and others, started calling and e-mailing folks and asking them to become sponsors early last week to put ads on radio and in the newspapers to try to get more fans to the Mississippi Coliseum Thursday night. Glen Waddle did the radio spots. From all indications it's working as ticket sales continue to climb.

"A lot of people not only want Ole Miss to win in basketball, but they want Ole Miss to play a game in Jackson every year," Harris said. "Coach Kennedy's already said he wants a big crowd and that it will help gauge whether the Rebels continue to play down here. So we wanted to do all we could to make sure they come back."

Obviously Ole Miss and Southern Miss will play in Jackson next year. That's already scheduled. But games in the capital city beyond that may be determined by how many fans buy tickets and show up tomorrow night when a tough Winthrop Eagles team takes the Mississippi Coliseum court.

"I just want the Ole Miss people to come out and support their team," Kennedy said Tuesday afternoon as he huddled with the media following practice at Tad Smith Coliseum. "We did this because Ole Miss hasn't played in Jackson since 1989. They said ‘Coach, why don't you come to Jackson?' So we're coming to Jackson. We'll see how it goes, and we'll see how the fans respond."


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