February 1, 2008

Small point guards take center stage

If the Ole Miss Rebel basketball team continues to build in a positive direction under head coach Andy Kennedy, Rebel fans might need to thank Timmy Smith.

Because of Smith, Kennedy recruited Devan Downey, and because of Devan Downey, Kennedy recruited Chris Warren.

Downey, Warren and Kennedy will all be on hand Saturday, when the No. 22 Rebels (16-3, 3-3 SEC) host South Carolina at 4 p.m. at Tad Smith Coliseum.

But it all started with Smith. While Kennedy was still assisting Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, the Bearcats faced 13th-seeded East Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

In a game where Cincinnati hung on for an 81-77 win, the Bearcats had no answer for Smith - a speedy 5-foot-9 sophomore who scored a game-high 26 points and single-handedly made the Bearcat coaches sweat.

After the game, Kennedy and Huggins, who had always leaned on strong, physical guards, had a conversation Kennedy still remembers.

"Maybe we need to go and find us one of those little guys," Kennedy said.

And they did.

Kennedy and Huggins landed the 5-foot-9 Downey out of Chester, S.C., confident they'd found their speedster.

"We stumbled upon Devan," Kennedy said. "A lot people were worried about his size and who he'd defend. But because of the experience we had in preparing for East Tennessee State and seeing it first hand, we knew that this kid had what it takes."

But before Downey could put on a Bearcat uniform, Huggins was no longer the coach. In his place, Kennedy took over, and he handed the keys to his offense to Downey.

The first-year player and first-year coach needed one another.

"I became the head coach, and Devan and I have a bond that I know, for me, will last forever because of what we went through," Kennedy said. "With me as a first-year coach and him as a first-year player, we had to become dependent on one another under the circumstances."

Downey scored 11.9 points per game for Kennedy's Bearcats, helping lead the team to a 21-13 record and a trip to the NIT quarterfinals.

But when Kennedy headed to Oxford to be the Rebels' new head coach, Downey decided to transfer. He visited Kennedy at Ole Miss before ultimately deciding to head home and play at South Carolina.

"He didn't choose me over Andy Kennedy, that's for sure," South Carolina head coach Dave Odom said.

After sitting out a year, Downey's shown little rust, averaging a team-high 19.6 points per game and a 3.4 steals per game, which is tops in the country.

While Downey was sitting out a year at South Carolina, Kennedy was leading the Rebels to a share of the SEC West title. But with three guards graduating, Kennedy knew he needed to find a point guard.

And when he saw Chris Warren play, he knew that he'd found something that could work. Warren, who at just 5 feet, 10 inches, didn't have any big-time scholarship offers, but Kennedy said he learned from Downey that height doesn't matter.

"That led me to not have any concerns about a kid's size or lack thereof because of what I experienced first hand," Kennedy said. "That enabled me to overlook some of the things people were cautious about when it came to Chris Warren based on his size.

"Because I had the experience with Devan and I felt that Chris had a lot of the same characteristics, it took away any reservations I had trying to recruit him and putting the ball in his hands."

The comparison hasn't been lost on Warren - the Rebels' leading scorer at 16.1 points per game.

"He mentions Devan Downey to me. He compares our games," Warren said. "He says we're both quick, and when he had him as a freshman, he put trust in him."

Warren also states the obvious, when it comes to comparing the two guards.

"We're both short - the smallest guys on the court but the quickest," he said.

Offensively, though, the two players do different things. More than Warren, Downey does a lot of damage near the rim.

"Devan's an attack, attack, attack guy," Kennedy said. " He's got an uncanny ability to finish in traffic over size. It's incredible."

Downey also plays with more visible emotion, Kennedy said.

"Chris isn't that way. He keeps the same facial expressions," Kennedy said. "You don't always know if he's hearing everything you say. Then, he goes out and does everything you asked him to do, and you know he's hearing it.

"They're different in their makeup."

But while their games and emotions might differ, the two guards play at the same speed - fast.

"It's speed on speed; it's rubber on rubber," Odom said. "…It'll be burn, baby, burn when those two go at each other."

Odom said Downey will certainly have some feelings to deal with Saturday, when he lines up to face the coach that helped his game mature.

"There's going to be a pocket of emotion that he'll have to deal with, and I'll have to coach him against him trying to do too much," Odom said. "But like in any big game, five minutes inside the game it becomes just that - a game."

For Kennedy, it won't be easy coaching against Downey - but not because of emotional reasons.

"It's fearful for me because I know how good he is," Kennedy said.

Downey and junior Zam Frederick (16.3 ppg) lead South Carolina's perimeter-oriented offense. The Gamecocks (10-10, 2-4) are coming off a 62-56 win at home over Georgia.

Ole Miss took care of No. 18 Vanderbilt on Wednesday night, holding the Commodores to a season-low scoring night in the Rebels' 74-58 win - snapping a two-game losing streak.

"I think as a team, we're back to our normal self," Warren said. "We're going to sit down and play some 'D'."

Whatever happens when South Carolina and Ole Miss tangle, it won't change how highly Kennedy thinks of Downey.

"I love the kid. I'll always love the kid regardless of what happens on Saturday," He put me in a position, based on the things he did, for me to be the head coach at Ole Miss.

"I'll never forget that."

And Rebels shouldn't forget that if it weren't for East Tennessee State's Timmy Smith and what he showed Kennedy that March day, who knows what would've happened.

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