Hoops practice begins; Rebs want NCAA bid

No matter what coach you talk to in any sport, their teams are always a puzzle to piece together. It's part of what they do as leaders of a program.

Only a couple of times can I recall a scenario like the one Andy Kennedy has this year. If things go according to plan, everybody who plays for the Rebels this season will play again next season. There are no seniors who will get significant playing time. Only two are on the roster – Patrick Spach and Ryan Brown.

The last time I can remember that happening, actually in any sport, was in 1996-97 and again in 1997-98. It was men's hoops then and the Rebs won back to back SEC West titles.

The 1997 team lost to Temple by 20 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Kansas City. In Oklahoma City the 1998 team lost, well, wait ‘til March Madness and you'll see it over and over. And probably before then.

Those two teams were one and done in the Big Dance. I think many fans would take that for this year's team. Eniel Polynice told me in an interview last week that wasn't his thinking at all. He wants to win games once the Rebels get there.

And they can. But first they have to get there. The 1997 team that lost to Temple 62-42 struggled to get much going offensively against the matchup zone they faced vs. the Owls under Coach John Chaney.

Temple and Ole Miss got together again a few months later. Most of you remember. It was at Tad Smith and it followed an Ole Miss-Georgia football game at Vaught-Hemingway that was played in the afternoon.

It was a night to indeed remember as the Rebels came out blazing and beat the Owls 87-74. Chaney was gracious in defeat. He seemed to enjoy being at Ole Miss. He sat in the stands an hour before the game and talked to some UM fans as the place began to fill to the rafters. After his team lost, he started out his press conference with a comment about hoping somebody would bring him a plate of catfish.

Fun night. Good times. For hoops and for Ole Miss.

This era is beginning to remind me of that one.

The past two years have been big winners for the Rebels – 21 and 24 victories respectively, including an SEC West title two seasons ago. An NCAA tourney bid has been right there for the taking. But the Rebels couldn't take it either year.

This year's team has taking it in mind. And, as EP said, winning when it gets there.

Official practice begins tonight, but the road to here began long ago. This coaching staff will tell you, as all conscientious coaches do given the same situation, that the past two teams were theirs. But this team truly is Kennedy and staff's.

Now three seasons in, only Spach remains on the Rebel roster from the previous era.

It's the opposite of last year. This time last year we were all wondering how the Rebels would be competitive since Todd, Bam, and Clarence were gone from the backcourt. After winning 24 games with Chris Warren, Polynice, David Huertas, Zach Graham, and Trevor Gaskins stepping in and stepping up, the backcourt is no longer a question mark.

Now it's the big men, Dwayne Curtis, Kenny Williams, and Jermey Parnell, who've moved on. So what are the Rebs to do?

They'll look to 6-9, 220, sophomore Malcolm White, who got significant minutes and gained valuable experience off the bench last season, playing in 26 games and averaging nearly seven minutes a contest.

They'll look to redshirt freshman Kevin Cantinol, at 6-10 and 250 a potential force in the middle. Kennedy is excited about the progress Cantinol's made since last season. Having been through the program as a redshirt last year, he should be ahead of the game a bit, so to speak.

They'll look to DeAundre Cranston, a more athletic version of the guys who departed the program and who can shoot the three. At 6-9, 250, the JUCO transfer junior shouldn't be pushed around and should see a good bit of playing time early because of his junior college experience.

They'll look to Terrance Henry, a talented 6-9, 195, freshman, and they'll look to 6-7, 225, Murphy Holloway, another freshman who brings as much positive hoops reputation as anybody on the roster.

"Terrance has a skill-set unlike any we've had on our front line since I've been here," Kennedy said. "He has the skill-set of a guard. His biggest detriment in year one will be physical strength.

"Murphy has a 6-11 wing span, so he has extremely long arms," Kennedy continued. "He plays with more energy than anybody on our team. He has a nose for the ball. He can play multiple positions and can hurt you in a variety of ways. He also has the skill-set of a guard. He can create some matchup issues once he learns the things he needs to do and do well."

Kennedy on freshman guard Will Bogan (6-1, 170): "A terrific perimeter shooter who, by going against Chris Warren every day, is challenged and is being prepared for what he is going to face."

Kennedy on freshman guard Terrico White (6-5, 210): "He's a special athlete, an off the chart athlete. Physically he's made tremendous strides in his strength level. He can score in a variety of ways. He led the city of Memphis in scoring last year. He picks things up quickly and we've been pleasantly surprised how he has made an impact defensively, which we were not anticipating this early."

The Rebels will be challenged quickly with a schedule that features Arkansas State here in the season opener (Friday, Nov. 14) under former LSU head coach John Brady, as well as NCAA participants South Alabama here and West Virginia (a Sweet Sixteen team last season) here, Utah in a tourney in Daytona Beach, a contest at New Orleans, a game at The Pit against New Mexico, and a matchup with national title contender Louisville in the SEC-Big East challenge in Cincinnati.

And all of that is Dec. 18 or earlier.

"The biggest change for our team this year is obviously the completely different personnel on our frontline," Kennedy said. "We're going to have more versatility. We'll miss the guys we had last year. We're not as big and we're not as experienced. But we're actually longer and more athletic and certainly more versatile at the frontcourt spots."

There's the challenge of team chemistry, which all agree has been good so far. And there's the question that when it's somebody other than their own teammates lining up against them, how will they respond?

It officially starts tonight and, if all involved have their way, it won't end until at least sometime in the NCAA Tournament.

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