With the near nightmare from 2008-09 now behind them, the Ole Miss men's basketball team is a confident group as November nears. And it shows in a more relaxed approach, even with the media.
No podium to stand behind. No formality to it all – at least not yet.
Just pull up a few chairs and talk about things. That's the way it was again Tuesday afternoon in the media workroom at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Several players visited with those assembled – veterans Eniel Polynice, Trevor Gaskins, Zach Graham, and Chris Warren. All were sporting better knees and a mature approach as they talked about practice and the upcoming season.
Newcomers DeAngelo Riley and Reginald Buckner then joined the group with their thoughts on life in Division I basketball so far.
Today some words from the vets. Tomorrow, the newcomers.
Andy Kennedy has always talked about his players taking ownership. His players, in a separate setting, talked about that same thing.
"He's letting us take on more leadership roles," said Polynice, a fourth-year junior who has been in the program every year Kennedy has been at Ole Miss. "The captains and the leaders are taking more of a lead role. That's helped us a lot. It's helped us play with more freedom and with a lot of confidence. It will help us in the long run."
Polynice expanded on the thought.
"We're just taking ownership of everything," he said. "He (Kennedy) puts us in position not to fail, and I think that helps us out a lot."
Gaskins agreed the players are more active and vocal in moving this team forward.
"He wants me, Chris, EP to be the leaders," the third-year sophomore said. "He wants us to talk it up and tell people what they need to hear, things like that."
Warren said Kennedy is simply practicing what he preaches.
"He's always preached that it's mainly our team," said the third-year junior. "This year we're more vocal with the guys. I just try to lead by example. But I also try to help my team more by being vocal this year."
Kennedy reiterated that as well and says he sees it daily.
"We've always preached ownership," he said. "Ultimately it is about them. My role is to adhere to the standard that is set by the team. So I'm glad they feel that way."
A leaner, stronger Graham
Zach Graham, the third-year junior, has toned his body following a knee surgery and rehab this summer and fall. More sleek and lean, Graham said he feels he's able to be more effective this way.
"I really focused on my body, and having the time off with my knee gave me the time to focus on upper body strength and getting my diet right," said the 6-foot-6, 218-pound Graham, down about eight to ten pounds from his playing weight of last season.
Graham said being lighter has its advantages.
"It's made me more explosive and quicker on the court," he said. "I can already tell a difference."
Graham played until the end of the season before having surgery on his knee, which, unlike the other three, was not reconstructive. Therefore the recovery time was less.
He said it was tough at times last season playing through pain.
"It was pretty difficult," he said. "I was pretty limited in practice, and I felt it in games. But I'm really trying not to even think about it now. We all went through adversity and I thank God now that everybody is healthy. We're only thinking about this season."
Everything in focus
"We've had two good weeks," Kennedy said. "Our guys are working extremely hard. I've said this before. It's the most focused group we've had in our four years. I think a lot of that is we've finally got some guys who have been through the rigors of what they're about to face and have a better understanding of that."
Beyond that, he said a host of them obviously know their seasons could end at any moment.
"The upside for the kids that went through the injuries last year is that now they understand how quickly things can change. So they're really approaching things with a focus that as a coach you're pleased to see."
Kennedy said, knock on wood, so far everybody has remained healthy.
"If you didn't know it, you wouldn't know that any of them were ever hurt," he said.
Notebook: Ownership Stake
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