Usually the latter months of spring and earlier weeks of summer see action slow down for Ole Miss men's basketball, but head coach Andy Kennedy has found no abundance of downtime.
After the Rebels wrapped up a trying 16-15 season with a first round exit from the SEC Tournament, a bit of attrition began to take its toll.
Sophomore Malcolm White was the first to exit, as the forward decided to transfer to SEC West rival LSU. Junior David Huertas, who led the team and ranked fourth in the conference in scoring with 18.1 points per game, also departed, but in favor of a professional career in his native Puerto Rico.
Added emphasis was placed on recruiting, as 4-star forward Reggie Buckner and Southwest Tennessee product DeAngelo Riley were the first newcomers to add their names next year's roster. They wouldn't be the last, however, as Kennedy and staff also had their sights targeted on Indiana transfer Nick Williams.
"Nick is a talented, versatile wing who we are excited about joining our program," Kennedy said of arguably the most decorated transfer to call Ole Miss home. "The experience he gained as a freshman at Indiana, coupled with an outstanding prep career, makes him exactly what we were looking for."
But now with a busy offseason virtually in the books, the team will look toward the 2009 season, which could prove to be Kennedy's most successful year to date.
"We're certainly going to be athletic and more versatile on our wings," said Kennedy. "We've got size and we've got speed which will give us more options. Any time you lose a guy who averaged over 18 points like David, there will be some adjustments. But we're pleased with where we are."
An intriguing area to watch will be the return of four pivotal players for Kennedy from injury, who will each play a large role in the team's efforts next season.
Trevor Gaskins, Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice each suffered ACL injuries in 2008, with junior Zach Graham playing the majority of the season with a partially torn patella tendon.
"Trevor was the first to get hurt and obviously he was the first back," Kennedy said. "He's back cleared. Eniel Polynice was the second and he'll probably get back by the end of May. Chris was the third and he should be cleared sometime in June. Zach was the last and we're looking at him returning in mid-to-late July."
Kennedy said the return of those four, along with some returning underclassmen who contributed heavy minutes during the year, should pay dividends in the team's pursuits.
"When you think about the guys we got returning in our back court, Chris has already proven to be an all-league player," Kennedy said. "Terrico (White) has proven to be an all-league player. Trevor was on the All-Freshmen team. We felt Eniel would have an opportunity to be an all-league caliber guy last season prior to the injury. With those four guys, you're talking about players who've been all-league.
"You bring Zach Graham back, who grew tremendously over the season, and also Will Bogan and Terrance Henry, we feel we'll be as deep and as talented as any team we've ever had here in our perimeter play."
With the departure of Malcolm, focus has been placed on the front court, as the team returns few bodies to floor.
DeAundre Cranston is expected to replace Malcolm down low, but averaged only 3.1 ppg and 4.2 rebounds last season. Murphy Holloway had a stellar freshman season, but will need to find more consistency each game out.
Kennedy expects much improvement from Cranston and Holloway in their respective second years in the program, but also some added contributions from newcomers and other returning post players.
"Malcolm made some great strides for us once we got into SEC play, but we lose one and gain a couple of talented guys," said Kennedy. "Also, you typically see the greatest improvement from year one to year two and we expect to see that from DeAundre (Cranston).
"His skill-set offensively is more face-up, but he can guard bigger bodies inside. Murphy Holloway had a tremendous freshman year. We're hoping to get a more consistent level of production. We think we will. Then there's Kevin Cantinol and we're hoping in year three, he's able to give us some quality minutes."
Ignoring the unforeseen, next season has all the makings of a return trip to the NCAA Tournament for Ole Miss men's basketball.
Kennedy has always sought a lineup laced with speed, with next year's unit possessing that quality top-to-bottom. If all participating members are able to stay healthy, 2009 could be the year for Kennedy and the Rebels.
"Certainly we would have never anticipated what would have transpired last season," Kennedy said. "But the benefactor in that was it offered a great opportunity for guys like Terrico (White). He was forced to grow. He embraced the opportunity and had a tremendous year.
"Once we put him with a facilitator like Eniel and a player who is able to create for his teammates like Chris, then a lot of pressure will be taken off Terrico. Hopefully now, we'll be able to do the things we've envisioned."
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