There are injuries to consider as well as the physical and mental wear and tear of the day to day, game to game grind of a 30-plus game, five-month season. If you don't believe that, if you think it's a bunch of coach-speak or reporter-talk, think again.
It isn't easy going through one of these seasons unscathed or being "up" all the time. It isn't possible to win them all anymore unless, it appears, you play in a softer league like the lone remaining unbeaten team in Division I and play all of your most difficult non-conference games at home, too.
Some had said, written, posted, pointed out that Andy Kennedy didn't look like his usual self in games at Auburn and Mississippi State; therefore his team didn't either. But I heard a comment or two from him in the days prior to those two games that made me think he was at that time trying to find the best combinations of pull and push, give and take, for a team that was beginning to have some injuries – JP's and DC's and TW's feet, bumps and bruises here and there, not to mention the mental grind many of these first-year Rebels were experiencing for the first time in college.
This isn't just throw the ball out there and tip it up. This is a day to day, hour to hour, class to training room to practice to training room again to schoolwork routine many of these guys have never been through and some only once, like an Eniel Polynice who seems to be handling all this about as well as anyone on the team.
A big part of Kennedy's and his more than able staff's job, especially during the season, is to figure all this out and try to keep things moving through the good times and bad, through the mental and physical wars, and have the team playing its best a month from now. It's not a simple task.
"I'm a guy who tries to coach by feel and instincts," he said after the Rebels 74-58 win over Vandy at home. "Sometimes you wanna yell and scream, and sometimes you gotta go bake cookies. I mean, really. With this team, we've got a fragile group. Again we are playing a lot of young guys. And in my mind I'm looking at them and as they look at me, I'm starting to think they would be preparing for the district (high school) playoffs right now this time last year. Really. So I have to be mindful of that and understand when to push and when to pull and when to pick them up."
Like after last Saturday's 20-point road loss.
"We really backed off," Kennedy said of the past few days. "We challenged them a lot mentally. We showed them the debacle of last Saturday and we tried to learn some things from that. Then we came out and said this is about us. This is about regaining our edge. Our kids have great confidence in this building, and most teams do at home. We take great pride in defending home floor, so this was a must for us. We have to defend home floor if we plan on being in it in March."
While some guys like Jermey Parnell and even Dwayne Curtis are struggling with their situations, and others might be nicked and banged up a bit, like Trevor Gaskins who has a shin problem, Kennedy searches for those who can help. He started Zach Graham Wednesday night, trying to get some production from him, trying to see if David Huertas and Gaskins could come off the bench and help out more. Trying anything and everything to get it back like it was when the Rebs were less bruised, perhaps even more confident, with their 13-0 record prior to SEC play.
"We got some good minutes," he said of some of the guys who stepped up, even if for a short time, in this one. "We are searching for some minutes in lieu of JP's situation. We went to Mac (Malcolm White, eight minutes) and Terrence (Watson, five minutes, two points, two rebounds, two blocks) because of the fact that they had a four man that was more of a face-up guy. Terrence was good, he gave us good energy, and he kept balls alive. For a kid that hasn't played very much, it's not easy to cut your teeth against a top 20 team. He helped us tonight."
Watson said he was glad to get in the game and really help out for the first time in a while.
"We had to get a victory today after losing the last two," said the junior whose playing time diminished after a turned ankle prior to the New Mexico game on Dec. 1. "It's SEC play and we want to stay in it. This was a big win against a ranked opponent."
Watson, from Detroit, said this win felt as good as any of the ones from before the SEC season began.
"Everybody was excited in there, coach was excited. This was big."
Indeed it was as the 22nd-ranked Rebs had beaten the 18th-ranked Commodores to move to 16-3 overall and .500 in the SEC at 3-3.
"I just gotta help the team," Watson said. "Jermey Parnell's out. I'm just trying to bring energy out there."
Watson, known for his defensive play, said the Rebels stepped up in that department.
"This was one of our most intense games defensively. Coach had been preaching that all week. We knew we had to come out hard and play defense to win tonight."
Graham got the start and with nine points and three rebounds was happy he could contribute to the victory.
"I want to bring energy to the floor on both ends, whether I'm starting or not starting," he said.
Graham said he and the younger players are beginning to understand more what it takes to compete and win at this level.
"We're making better decisions. We made better decisions toward the end of the game. We'd been struggling doing that lately. But we finished this one strong."
A veteran who made his presence known more than in the last couple of games was Kenny Williams.
"Fouls had been keeping me out for the last few games. I knew I had to come out and play with a lot of energy. For the next two games (Vandy and South Carolina), we need these games. We don't lose in the Tad Pad."
Williams, with 10 points and 10 rebounds, a block and two steals, said he took a cue from a fan who pointed out he wasn't the same lately as he used to be. Rather than rejecting the fact that someone from the stands might have a suggestion, Williams listened.
"An older lady who comes to all our games said to me that I wasn't like I was, being more aggressive and doing blocks and getting some dunks. For her to say that, it really opened my eyes. I had to pick it up."
He says he sees the lady often at games and on other days around the coliseum.
"She usually comes in and talks and maybe wants something signed," he said.
So he listened and listened good.
Who knows? Maybe there'll be some baked cookies, too, next time.
According to Kennedy, sometimes you just gotta go do that. In the long grind of a college basketball season, whatever works, right?
AK: Sometimes you just gotta bake cookies
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