Open Season

Andy Kennedy sat casually and comfortably in the media room in C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum Thursday morning. The start of official practice was a day away.

The previous season, his third as head coach at Ole Miss, had been a nightmare. His team, at least the ones still standing at the end of it all, had somehow managed to win more games than it lost, a 16-15 final record a testament to staying the course, having thick skin, and believing.

This year, with knees healthy and fingers crossed that things stay that way, the Rebels again believe.

They believe they can be better than they've been in several years. So does their coach.

"It's the best group we've ever had here as far as being of a common cause," said Kennedy, with two NIT appearances including one New York trip to the semi-finals in his first two years in Oxford. "No one likes to lose. No one likes to be in a situation where you don't feel like you are playing the way you anticipate playing. All those things now are pointing toward guys trying to do something about it. Guys understand that we've got a good group. They understand the pieces that are there. Everybody's committed to the same thing."

And that same thing is getting to the NCAA Tournament as a program for the first time since 2002 and winning the program's first Southeastern Conference regular season crown.

"To be honest with you, from day one, it's always been the goal," Kennedy said of the NCAA Tournament and the SEC title. "I've seen our guys articulate it to you guys that our goal is to win the SEC Championship. That's never been done in the history of this program (in the SEC). That's our goal. Is it feasible? I think it is. Is it going to be a tremendous challenge? Of course, because the SEC is going to be back to a six-bid league this year and as a result there's going to be a number of challenges, but I think we have the pieces in place, God willing we don't have to experience anything like we did last year. The pieces are in place to do it. Now it's just our job to do it."

The backcourt returns and is strong – Eniel Polynice, Chris Warren, Trevor Gaskins, Terrico White, Zach Graham, Will Bogan.

The frontcourt is more of a question mark. Lone senior DeAundre Cranston (6-foot-9) is back, as is Terrance Henry (6-9). Kevin Cantinol (6-10) returns, and Murphy Holloway (6-7) got valuable experience last season.

Newcomers Reginald Buckner (6-8 freshman) and DeAngelo Riley (6-9 JUCO junior) will make their presence known and help the Rebels in the post.

The pieces are there. Can the Rebels stay away from injury and will their post play be strong enough to make the run they hope to make?

"It's the best we've had just because of the versatility, the speed and the strength," Kennedy said of the style of play for this year's team. "When you start talking about our guards, obviously, Chris' game is built on speed and his ability to change and his ability to make shots. He's playing at a really high level. Then you talk about the size that we have on our wings with Terrico at 6-5 and EP at close to 6-6 and Zach Graham at 6-6 and Terrance Henry who can even face the basket at 6-9. It gives us some real versatility to play in a way we have not been able to before."

And then there is the front court. Kennedy feels the pieces are in place to get the job done.

Here's what he had to say, at length, about his big men.

"We've got Reginald Buckner, who's got a chance to be a tremendous player. Without question he will make an immediate impact. Physically he's got all the tools, and it's just a matter of how quickly he matriculates to all the things that come with college. And then you've got a kid in DeAngelo Riley and he's about 6-9, but he's got a 7-3 wingspan and may be longest kid we've ever had here. He's about 245 pounds, He gives us a shot-blocking presence at the basket. Just like every kid coming from junior college to the SEC, there will be a transition period.

"You couple those two along with DeAundre Cranstron. I always talk about year one to year two transformation, and we're seeing that with DeAundre. He's approaching this season with a sense of urgency that you want your seniors to have. And then we still have Kevin Cantinol, who's into year three, and he's kind of caught up now to understanding what the demands are. At 6-10 and 250 pounds, he certainly is a presence, and he has to use that to be more assertive. He's a passive kid by nature, and we're trying to get him a little more aggressive between the lines.

"And then Terrance Henry. Some people forget about Terrance. He's 6-9 and when he got here he was about 182 and he's hovering right around 203 or 204 and maintaining that, and that takes his game to another level, because physically now he's able to do some of the things we need him to do. He's playing a lot stronger. He was a highly touted kid that came in and we had great expectations for him, and that has not diminished."

When Polynice and Warren were out of action, White stepped in and took control of the team. He was named SEC Freshman of the Year for his efforts.

"Physically, now his body's been in our weight and conditioning program for 12 months. You can really see his maturation," Kennedy said. "He's a young kid. He played all last year at 18 and didn't turn 19 until the spring when our season was over. He's still a kid. He's grown a little bit, believe it or not. We measured him the other day and he's grown close to an inch. He's 215 pounds.

"Physically, he's as strong as he's ever been and he has an understanding. What he went through last year was certainly a growth opportunity for him, and he took advantage of it at a very high level as we all saw. And then to have the opportunity to continue that into the summer and play in a different role against really good players in a foreign country, and have the chance to represent our country, has done wonders for his psyche and his confidence. He's been tremendous.

"Terrico is the kind of kid that, physically, if he ever learns to push himself consistently then obviously his potential is unlimited, and he's starting to get that. He's winning all the drills. It's important to him now. He's becoming competitive more so than just with the ball in his hand, and that, to me, is the next step in his maturation."

Kennedy said the fact that White was point guard the latter half of last season and that Warren, Gaskins, and Polynice return, that all just makes things even stronger for the Rebels' backcourt.

"Chris was obviously our point guard two years ago and at times when he and EP were on the floor together, EP would play the point some and move Chris off the ball," Kennedy said. "If one or the other wasn't in the game, then really Trevor was our point guard. So we not only are bringing back one guy, but we're bringing back three guys that can share in that point guard responsibility, so there will be times this year that there will be four guys capable of playing the point on the floor at the same time.

"We'll play to the strengths of our players. We've got enough in our offensive package to utilize the strengths that will be on the floor. It truly is not going to be an issue. Right now, at this early stage, we'll interchange a lot of different people at different places, and we're going to try to put in some offensive continuity that's not so reliant on one guy playing one position."

Today they begin to try to get them all on the same page for a run through March. The challenges are there, as usual, but Kennedy said he and his staff are ready to put things together and head toward the exhibition game on Nov. 6 vs. Auburn-Montgomery.

"We'll try to lay the foundation. We'll try to make sure that fundamentally we will do the basics better," he said. "As simple as it sounds, basketball is a pretty fundamental game. We spend an inordinate amount of time in player development, and we'll try to figure out what gives us the best chance to be successful. But the first couple of weeks will be all about laying the foundation and making sure that the pieces of the puzzle fit."

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