When Ole Miss took the floor for a season opener against Arkansas State in November, a renewed sense of optimism surrounded Rebel men's hoops.
The squad had appeared in the NIT Final Four a year earlier, were returning a talented roster and a highly-regarded group of newcomers were ready to stamp their place.
But as the year went on, an already crowded injury list began to expand. Before the season even started, guards Trevor Gaskins and Eniel Polynice were sidelined due to ACL tears. Add star point guard Chris Warren to the walking wounded, and the task of a winning season became even more daunting.
"I've had a few ankle problems before, but nothing major. I've never been out eight months like that," Warren said of struggling through an ACL injury of his own. "Being sidelined gave me more time to become more vocal with the guys. I got to watch a lot more basketball. I tried to help the team the best I could without playing."
The Rebels responded, playing their way into postseason contention with 10 games left in the season. They would drop eight of of those final contests, however, finishing the year 16-15 overall and 7-9 in SEC play.
Now having been cleared to full activity last week, Warren and Polynice are focused on taking the team to greater heights.
"Sitting there watching from the bench, it totally changed my mindset," Polynice said. "It totally changed the way each of us looks at the game and how we lead the team. I've got no tentativeness in drills. I'm holding back nothing. I'm just out there playing my game, getting a lot stronger, getting a lot better and trying to do my best."
Over the years, head coach Andy Kennedy has called for his players to "appreciate the moment" and to "approach every game as if it's your last." Having to sit out his entire junior year before receiving a medical redshirt, Polynice has taken those challenges to heart.
"When he told us that, we weren't looking at it from his perspective. Like coach said, tomorrow's not promised," he said. "Everyday we're out here, we have to step up and play hard. We're going to do whatever we can to help the team out. Hopefully everything can fall into place so we can be successful."
But getting to this point has certainly been difficult.
Warren said he tried to stay positive through months of rehab, but the mental toll was tough to overcome at first.
"I've seen other players get hurt and they way they came back. I tried to take the same approach they had," Warren said. "I'm good now. I'm moving well and playing well. I feel good.
"I would say the mental part at the beginning was the toughest part. The rehabbing does something to you mentally, but once you get through that, you're good."
Polynice, who has struggled with knee problems throughout his Rebel career, said having surgery has helped the talented junior gain some lost explosiveness.
"It's a big relief. My sophomore year I was a lot more explosive. Going into my junior year, I had a lot of swelling in my knee. Now I have no swelling and no pain," he said. "I think it's a blessing for me to just be able to play healthy. I just have to get through the season and enjoy my next couple of years at Ole Miss."
Having put their injuries in the rearview mirror, Warren and Polynice can only worry about improving their game, as the team has high hopes for 2009.
"Everybody has gotten better. No one has taken a day off. Everybody's getting better," Polynice said. "Body wise, Terrance Henry has gained about 20 pounds. DeAundre (Cranston) is looking a lot better. But everybody is looking a lot better and a lot stronger. Everyone's been here the entire summer. I think this is the first time that's happened. Once we get the chemistry back in August or September, everybody should know their role.
"Me, Chris and Trevor let the team know when we have to hoop and when we have to lift. We'll get some running in and some conditioning. Basically, we're just doing the same thing every day. We're finally getting the feeling back of playing basketball."
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