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December 13, 2007
Kennedy has Rebels off to solid start
Among the 14 undefeated teams in the country are some usual suspects, such as North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Georgetown and Memphis.
Texas is playing as well as any team in the country, and Washington State expected this kind of start after the season it put together last year and had nearly everyone back.
But Ole Miss is in mostly unfamiliar territory. The Rebels' 7-0 start, while not necessarily built against top-flight competition, is the best start at the school since the Rebels opened 11-0 in the 2000-2001 season.
"I'm like every coach at this time, and we're certainly a work in progress," second-year Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy told Rivals.com. "We've done what we've needed to do to be one of the teams that's undefeated.
"We're still trying to figure things out with so many new players, but kids are stepping up and making plays when we need to in order to win games. We have quality depth; different people are doing it on different nights."
The Rebels are averaging 91.9 points per game, second nationally and best among the undefeated teams. Five players are scoring in double figures, and three more are averaging at least 5.0 points. Five different players have led the Rebels in scoring.
The starting lineup has two seniors, a sophomore and two freshmen. The leading scorer is freshman point guard Chris Warren (15.3 points per game). The second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder is senior center Dwayne Curtis (13.7 points, 8.0 rebounds). The leading rebounder is senior forward Kenny Williams (8.9 rebounds).
"Dwayne Curtis has experienced success at this level," Kennedy said. "He's in the best shape of his life. Kenny Williams is making the jump between year one and year two at this level after coming from junior college, and he has a much better sense of urgency. He's been a great emotional lift.
"We are dependent on their leadership on and off the floor. You have to count on your seniors, and they've done everything we've asked each and every day in practice and in games."
There weren't a lot of worries about the Ole Miss frontcourt heading into the season. The concerns were in the backcourt. The Rebels were picked to finish last in the SEC West because they had lost starters Todd Abernethy and Bam Doyne and no one was quite sure who would step in to replace them.
The way Kennedy has configured his lineup for the past two games – confidence-building victories over solid mid-majors New Mexico and UCF – includes three guards with Curtis and Williams. They are Warren, freshman Trevor Gaskins and sophomore Eniel Polynice.
Warren, a former three-star prospect, has been quite a find. He's 12th in the SEC in scoring and tied for first in assists with Florida freshman five-star prospect Nick Calathes. Warren, a 5-foot-11 guard who, like Calathes, is from the Orlando area, chose the Rebels over Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion.
"He has come in as a freshman and been handed the keys to the car, which can be a tenuous time for a coach, but he's learning," Kennedy said.
Gaskins, though, is the real long-range threat. A three-star prospect from the Atlanta area, he's second in the SEC in 3-point field-goal percentage (55.6) and fourth in 3-pointers made per game (2.86). He's averaging 11.6 points in only 17.9 minutes per game.
Polynice has been another pleasant surprise. A minor contributor as a freshman (3.9 points, 2.2 rebounds), he has found his place alongside the freshmen. He's averaging 12.7 points, including a 28-point outburst that included seven 3-pointers in an 81-78 victory over South Alabama.
"He's another one showing that great leap in improvement from year one to year two, like so many players do," Kennedy said. "He has made that next step to everyday contributor."
Kennedy deserves credit, too. The guy can coach. He was The Associated Press SEC Coach of the Year in his first season after taking the Rebels to a 21-13 mark and an NIT appearance. He is committed to running on offense and pressuring on defense. He's dictating tempo, and the players, new and old, certainly seem to have bought in.
After six consecutive home games, the Rebels got their first road test in a homecoming for Warren against UCF in Orlando. Ole Miss built a lead, UCF made a run and the Rebels held on to win 76-67.
After a game with Winthrop on Thursday night in Jackson, Miss., the Rebels will head to Puerto Rico for the San Juan Shootout.
"We had the first six at home by design," Kennedy said. "We like to schedule non-league games at home while our students are in town. Now we'll take the show on the road. We're not back in Oxford until early January. This is the next stage in the maturation process."
Bob McClellan's Pick Six
Each week, basketball editor Bob McClellan will pick six things to watch for over the weekend.
1. The debut of J.P. Prince. Tennessee already has 11 players averaging at least 10.6 minutes per game. Make room for one more. Prince, an Arizona transfer who had to sit out the first semester, becomes eligible for the Vols' game Saturday in Nashville against a dangerous Western Kentucky team. Vols coach Bruce Pearl has been saying that Prince will be a major factor, though he didn't break through for the Wildcats. He averaged 2.2 points and 1.9 rebounds as a freshman in Tucson. Prince, a 6-7 sophomore, is a former five-star prospect who can play small forward and either guard spot. It also will be interesting to see whose minutes he's going to take.
2. James Anderson vs. DeJuan Blair. The top 25 schedule is especially bleak this weekend, with several teams off because of final exams. One intriguing matchup has Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh. Each team has one of the nation's best freshmen. The Cowboys feature Anderson, a former Rivals four-star prospect who leads the team in scoring at 20.8 points. That's third among the nation's freshmen. Blair, the most recent Rivals.com National Freshman of the Week and another former four-star prospect, is one of the Big East's steals leaders and is tied for eighth nationally among freshmen in rebounding at 9.0 per game.
3. Florida State at Butler. We're about to find out if the Seminoles' surprising six-game winning streak is for real. It has included impressive victories at Florida and over Minnesota as FSU has pushed its record to 9-2. The Bulldogs (8-1), meanwhile, haven't played since Saturday's 43-42 loss to Wright State in which they shot 32 percent. Nobody has come within 14 points of Butler at home this season.
4. Eric Gordon's return. The freshman sensation, who's averaging 24.3 points, should return to action after missing the Hoosiers' 70-51 victory over Kentucky with a bruised lower back suffered on Dec. 3 against Tennessee State. Western Carolina (3-5) is hardly a marquee opponent, but Gordon is worth watching any time he plays.
5. Randal Falker will bounce back. Southern Illinois' leader has been in a two-game offensive slump. He went scoreless in a loss to Charlotte (thanks in large part to foul trouble), and he had eight points on 3-of-14 shooting in Tuesday night's victory over St. Mary's. There's no way he'll be that bad three games in a row. He's a career 55-percent shooter who's made just three of his past 17 shots. That spells trouble for Saint Louis on Saturday. No one should worry about Southern Illinois' fall from grace, either. Yes, the Salukis are out of the top 25 after a three-game losing streak. But the losses came to USC, Indiana and Charlotte, who are a combined 20-6.
6. UAB at Kentucky. The Wildcats (4-3) have lost their past two games and are desperate for a victory. When Blazers coach Mike Davis was at Indiana, UK had his number, going 5-1 against the Hoosiers with an average victory margin of 17.6 points. UAB leading scorer Robert Vaden (18.5 points per game) had 11 points for Davis the only time he beat the Wildcats at IU. The Blazers are 7-4. This game could go a long way toward propelling one team and putting another into a serious funk.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.