Ole Miss is quickly becoming the consensus second pick in the SEC West this preseason in men's basketball. Mississippi State appears to be the choice to win it by many.
That means a SEC-opening showdown in Oxford on Sat., Jan. 9, at 12:30 p.m. could safely be called a tone setter. The rematch in Starkville is at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11.
Since college town weekends start on Thursday nights, that one will no doubt have a hostile atmosphere for the visiting Rebels.
Last season the Rebels and Bulldogs each won a game in their series. But it didn't go according to the usual plan. Ole Miss won there and State won here.
While most Rebels aren't interested in seeing the Bulldogs at the top, and vice versa, it is in some ways neat to see the Mississippi schools get top billing. It doesn't happen a lot in sports, but it is this preseason in men's hoops.
Ole Miss has been receiving a positive outlook from several preseason publications. Organizations that have tabbed the Rebels as a probable NCAA Tournament team include Lindy's, Athlon's and Yahoo! Sports.
FoxSports.com has Ole Miss No. 25 in its preseason national rankings and says the Rebels will win the West, not State.
It all sets up for what appears to be a pretty exciting winter in Mississippi basketball.
In the media poll released Monday, Ole Miss and Kentucky were the only schools to have two players on the ten-member All-SEC teams. On the first team were Ole Miss' Terrico White and Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, who was the pick for Player of the Year. On the second team were Rebel Chris Warren and Wildcat John Wall.
The Wildcats were picked to win the overall league title under first-year head coach John Calapari. Ole Miss and Kentucky meet in Rupp Arena on Tues., Feb. 2.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said the 6-foot-5 White has progressed in every area since arriving on campus more than a year ago
"We always talk about that maturation process, having gone through it before, having an understanding what practices are like, travel is like, school is like. Physically his body now has had more than 12 months in our weight and conditioning program. You can really see a maturation," said Kennedy of White, who played for the Team USA U-19 squad this summer that won the gold medal.
"He's grown a little bit, believe it or not. We measured him and he's grown close to an inch. He's 215 pounds. Physically he's the strongest he's ever been. He has an understanding and what he went through last year was a growth opportunity for him. And he took advantage of it, as we all saw."
Ole Miss is in its first week of official preseason practice. The NCAA has loosened up its rules and allowed the coaches to have the whole team in some situations prior to the start of official practice last Friday.
In the past it was more of a coaches and four players situation during the early fall and up until mid-October. But now, Kennedy said the rules help coaches know even more about their team by this time of year.
"Because of the way the NCAA has things set up now, we've had a chance to already have our hands on our team," said Kennedy, starting his fourth season. "We had a number of occasions where we had our whole team together in a limited amount of time. It kind of takes away from a lot of the pomp and circumstance of the opening practice like it used to be. For us we're just continuing to extend on what we've built on to this point."
What they've been able to build on includes a host of returning players who have recovered from knee surgeries – Trevor Gaskins, Eniel Polynice, Zach Graham, and Warren.
Through it all, Kennedy has felt their pain because of his own personal experiences.
"I've done both ACLs," he said. "I did one in college and I did one that ended me professionally. I've had five knee operations. I played at North Carolina State, transferred (to UAB), and the summer prior to becoming eligible again after sitting out a year, I tore my left ACL and had a number of meniscus issues as it related to that injury. And then I tore my right one when I was overseas."
Kennedy knows what they've been through, both as a player and now as a coach.
"You just have to battle through, and I understand because I've been there," he said. "I understand the psychological part of it, and technology has come a long way since the late ‘80s when it happened to me. But our guys have been great."
The Rebels have an exhibition game against Auburn-Montgomery on Friday, Nov. 6, the night before the home football game against Northern Arizona.
The season opener against Arkansas-Little Rock is a week later on Friday, Nov. 13, the night before the home football game with Tennessee. Both contests are set for C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum, and both begin at 6 p.m.
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