A couple of weeks away even from their first exhibition game and the Rebels are already getting respect from those who cover the teams and the games.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy, as was to be expected, answered questions about last year's team from an injury standpoint and how they were able to survive it for a winning season. And he also heard other questions, like what effect so many young players having to step up last season will have on this year's ballclub.
Kennedy has heard those questions before, most of them many times. But that's the preseason story of this year's Ole Miss squad, with a first trip to the NCAA Tournament in eight seasons one of the team's goals.
"We are healthy, happy, focused and excited about getting our guys back," Kennedy said of the players lost during the season to injury last year. "We are excited about seeing a growth in the program with high expectations. When you have what we went through last year with season ending injuries, it changed our guys' focus and it really made them focus right where they needed to. So I am excited about the season."
Ole Miss finished 16-15 in 2008-09 and won seven SEC games even without the services of starting point guard Chris Warren, off-guard Eniel Polynice, shooting guard Trevor Gaskins and with Zach Graham not being 100 percent at season's end. All were sidelined with major knee injuries. Only Graham was around on the court after mid-December.
Kennedy continues to reiterate that the Rebel players who were without basketball last season in all likelihood matured as a result, knowing things in life can change at any moment, often not for the better.
"They're leading our young guys," he said. "We as coaches always talk about living in the moment and taking full advantage of every opportunity. Sometimes you don't really understand that until you go through something as adverse as those young men had to go through. They see how quickly basketball can be taken from them, and now they are truly bringing the right approach on a day in and day out basis."
Heading into his fourth season, Kennedy believes the Rebels can be a factor, and that's been a goal all along.
"We wanted to become relevant in the conversation," Kennedy said, meaning among those teams talked about who have an opportunity to compete for conference titles and make NCAA Tournament appearances. "We won 21 games that first year and a piece of the SEC West crown. In year two we won 24. We thought the natural maturation was last year and we'd take that next step. Unfortunately circumstances changed. No we're back to understanding that in order to take this next step, we all have to surrender to the team and we all have to understand our roles within the team. And if it is our destiny, I truly believe we'll be in that mix come February."
Sophomore guard Terrico White, the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2008-09, also attended Thursday's gathering. The Memphis, Tenn. native said he was eager for the season to arrive.
"With everybody back from injuries, word is getting around that Ole Miss is going to be good this year," said White, confidently. "There are people starting to take notice, and we are really going to surprise some people this year. We have more options this season. We can start four guards or go big and have me at the point."
White's ability to shift from shooting guard to point after so many of his fellow backcourt mates went down with injury served his team well.
"Coach asked me about playing point guard so my whole mindset had to change from playing a two guard all my life to playing point guard," White said. "But it really came easy for me."
Kennedy said White's experience from last season and through the Team USA U-19 Gold Medal summer have made him one of the SEC's top players.
"That was the silver lining if you are looking for the positive in what we went through last year," he said. "We asked him to transform into a point guard and lead his SEC team and he took on the challenge. He continued that maturation through the summer by being a member of the gold medal winning USA team and that continued his growth. He has more understanding of the day-to-day rigors of this league, and he is also excited to see his teammates back with him to give us more versatility and success."
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