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January 23, 2009It'll be a family reunion of sorts when Ole Miss visits South Carolina on Saturday.
Gamecocks guard Devan Downey will see one of his former coaches, Andy Kennedy, on the opposite bench. Kennedy was vital in Downey's recruitment to Cincinnati when he was coming out of Chester High School in 2005 and as it turned out, was Downey's head coach during his only year with the Bearcats.
"Thought I was going to go to Cincinnati, play for Bob Huggins and have a great career," Downey said last year. "But everything happens for a reason and this might be the reason all them things happened to me."
"What he and I went through together ... he was a freshman and I was a rookie interim coach, under not the best of circumstances," Kennedy said during his first season. "Something I'll remember forever. I look at him almost like a proud father."
Downey never played for Huggins, who resigned shortly after Downey had reported to campus in the summer of 2005. Kennedy was promoted to interim coach and guided the Bearcats to a 21-13 record and an NIT berth, Downey the point guard who made the Big East All-Rookie Team.
After the season ended -- coincidentally, 65-62 to eventual NIT champion USC -- Downey considered staying at Cincinnati if Kennedy was retained. But the Bearcats went in a different direction, hiring Murray State's Mick Cronin, Kennedy took the vacant job at Ole Miss and Downey put in for a transfer.
Downey considered Kansas State, where Huggins had landed, USC and Ole Miss among a few other schools. He visited Kennedy in Oxford but decided soon after to come to Columbia.
"He certainly didn't choose me over Andy Kennedy," former USC coach Dave Odom said during Downey's first year. "I think he just simply wanted to come home."
The Gamecocks have won each of their two meetings against the Rebels under Kennedy, Downey sitting out a 76-63 victory in 2007 due to his mandatory one-year transfer penalty and scoring 25 points in an 80-77 win in Oxford last year. USC wants to make it three straight and keep its ascent into the SEC upper level intact.
"This does a lot for our confidence," Downey said after the Florida win two nights ago. "We just want to keep it going."
It's been an interesting, to say the very least, season for Kennedy this year. After two straight 20-win seasons and NIT berths, plus the SEC Coach of the Year award in 2007 after leading the Rebels to a tie for the SEC West championship, Kennedy is 10-8 (1-3 SEC) this season. Arguably the team's best players, guards Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice, were shelved for the season with knee injuries in late December and the Rebels have struggled without them. Then another piece of what one publication called the best backcourt in the league, Trevor Gaskins, popped an ACL and joined the others on the injured list.
And then there's the off-the-court fodder. Kennedy was arrested on Dec. 18 for allegedly punching a cab driver and shouting racial slurs. The incident happened in Cincinnati, where the Rebels were playing Louisville in the SEC/Big East Invitational.
Kennedy filed a defamation lawsuit seeking damages against the cab driver and a witness and the lawsuit was recently amended by Kennedy's wife, Kimber. Kimber Kennedy is also seeking damages because she says the couple's love life has been affected by the incident.
Kennedy has pleaded not guilty to the charges, saying it was the cab driver who was shouting racial slurs at one of his assistant coaches, who is black. The driver and the witness have counter-sued Kennedy.
Ole Miss Athletics Director Pete Boone issued a statement soon after the incident saying he believed Kennedy's side of the story and was confident that once all the facts were in, Kennedy would be proven innocent. Kennedy did not miss any games due to the arrest.
Downey didn't comment on the situation when Kennedy was arrested but has said before he's got much respect for his old coach. "He really made it a lot easier," he said when Huggins was let go.
Kennedy has likewise spoken of the respect he has for his former player and holds no grudge against him for choosing USC over Ole Miss.
"I never once questioned that," Kennedy said during his first year. "Proud that it's working out for him."