In the prime of football season, offseason progress of Ole Miss men's basketball is often overlooked.
But for a team that returns all but two starters from a year ago, with a transfusion of familiar faces and newcomers, Rebel hoops provides a wealth of optimism worthy of discussion with tipoff of the season only two months away.
"We've had a great offseason. We're going into our third week and the guys are working hard. I couldn't be more pleased with how we've approached the preseason to this point," said Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy.
After appearing in the NIT Final Four a year earlier, Ole Miss took the floor for its season opener against Arkansas State in 2008-09 with high expectations.
However, three key members of the squad would be stricken with ACL injuries before SEC play, leading to the nation's least experienced team statistically finishing with a 16-15 record and 7-9 mark in conference play.
Now with guards Chris Warren, Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins back in the fold, along with three highly-regarded signees, the Rebel roster has deepened and it's showing in fall practices.
"The new rule that allows us to be on the floor has been great. The players respond to coaching," Kennedy said. "You can put them in competitive situations and I've been real pleased. With Chris (Warren) and Eniel Polynice, they've come back and really haven't missed a beat in leadership. Physically, they haven't had any issues up to this point. Trevor (Gaskins) obviously had a little setback with his other knee.
"(Indiana transfer) Nick Williams obviously has to sit out this year, but he's going to be a valuable member in what he brings to us. He's got some natural leadership ability. This year's important for him from a physical development standpoint. The loss of Malcolm White, a guy who gave us 25 minutes a game, presents a huge opportunity for (signees) Deangelo (Riley) and Reginald (Buckner) to be able to play immediately. They need to take advantage of that."
Though fully cleared from his ACL injury, Gaskins began feeling discomfort in his right knee during the summer.
An MRI in late August indicated a loose body, requiring minor surgery that Kennedy says Gaskins is close to returning from.
"He hurt his right knee in high school and had a loose body in it which was giving him some pain," he said. "It wasn't constant, but was flaring up. The doctors diagnosed the problem and went in and extracted the body. It was a pretty large size. They were relieved to find that number one, he was able to function around that, but number two, there was nothing unforeseen when they went in. In 7-to-10 days, he should be back to full activity."
Along with Gaskins, junior forward Zach Graham is also recovering from postseason surgery due to a partially torn patella tendon.
"We're still waiting with Zach. He's progressively going through rehab," said Kennedy. "He's doing a lot of one-on-one stuff with our strength staff. With his type of injury, usually six months is the magic date. We're about 10 days away from that. He'll do some functional tests this week and then he'll be cleared. The timing is pretty good.
"Right now we can work with them two times a week in an individual development capacity in groups of four or less. Starting next week, we can have our full team. That will hopefully coincide with Zach becoming cleared. Once we have our whole team in a regulated time allotment, he should be able to go in full."
Recently, the university released the full men's hoops schedule, highlighted by eight SEC home games and marquee non-league dates with West Virginia and Indiana.
The slate of opponents also includes 10 teams that advanced to postseason play and 11 teams that won at least 20 games last season, with a minimum of nine contests to be featured on national television.
"It's going to be challenging for us early," Kennedy said of the schedule. "With us playing in the San Juan tournament, typically you ease into your schedule. You get into a rhythm of three or four days until you get your feet under you. With us, we jump right in head first.
"With the new ESPN and CBS deals, we play a number of nationally televised games. They're going to give our team the stage to garner the attention that everyone wants for their program. We've just got to take advantage of it."
Over a bye-week, 30 members of the Ole Miss football team struggled through flu-like symptoms.
While Kennedy says the hoopsters have yet to discover a case, the staff is taking every precaution necessary to protect from a potential spread.
"Honestly, we haven't had any. I wish it would run through our team now, so we could deal with it. You can't time it. Evidently, what's going around is infiltrating everyone," he said. "But we haven't had any issues with it yet. Our situation, since we're such a small group as it relates to football, if somebody gets it it's going to spread through. If it happens to us, I hope it happens before we start play.
"We're taking the normal precautions. We're just trying to stay sanitized as much as possible. We're around them all the time, so anyone complaining about not feeling well or having a fever, we'll try to isolate them. I'd worry about it if I was a team in-season, but we're trying not to focus on it right now."
Over his stay in Oxford, Kennedy has accumulated 61 wins, the second-most by a head coach in any three-year span in school history.
For the first time since his debut season in 2006-07, however, Kennedy finally has a roster properly suited for his desired up-tempo style of play. With the personnel in place, Kennedy sees this season as a unique opportunity.
"Even though we only have one senior on our roster, we have experienced guys," he said. "If you look at it, everybody on the team with the exception of the newcomers and Kevin Cantinol has started an SEC game. That will hopefully bode well for this year's team. Guys, for a variety of reasons, were given opportunities. Now, I hope we can use it to our advantage."
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