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Kennedy tries to continue quietly winning at Ole Miss

October 31, 2016 Columns No Comments

The SEC may be known much more for football these days, but on the hardwood, there are plenty of interesting story lines to follow. One that probably won’t get enough coverage is the job that the dean of coaches there – Andy Kennedy – continues to do winning consistently at Ole Miss, a school that has never been a powerhouse by any stretch.

When Rob Evans was the head coach in Oxford, he was the first coach in over 50 years to post a winning record over his tenure, and Rod Barnes kept things going after Evans left for another tough job in Arizona State, coming up just three wins shy of the program record at the time. Both won a National Coach of the Year honor while in Oxford.

Kennedy has continued the success, as they have finished in the top half of the SEC in each of his ten seasons at the helm. At a school with an all-time SEC winning percentage that barely tops 38 percent, he has a career SEC record of 79-73. Last season, they quietly went 10-8 in SEC play en route to a 20-12 overall mark, and that marked the eighth time in his ten seasons they have won 20 or more games. Furthermore, they have had a winning overall record in each of his ten seasons.

You get the idea: Kennedy has done a great job that has largely flown under the radar. In fact, if you asked the average fan who the dean of coaches in the SEC is, few if any would probably get it right.

Keeping that run up this year will be a challenge, and one that will look a bit different than in the past. The Rebels will greatly miss Stefan Moody, and for that matter, so will basketball fans because he was fun to watch. Moody was not only their best player, but he had a motor that was always running on overdrive.

This year’s team has a little different roster makeup. Only one player, Sebastian Saiz, will be in his fourth year in the program, and that’s who the staff will lean on. Whereas the Rebels have been used to guards being their primary option in recent years, the 6’9″, 240-pound Saiz will operate first on the low block. Saiz could be a double-double guy this year, and if he does that, it will go a long way toward a successful season. The only other player with much starting experience is senior Rasheed Brooks, who started 22 games a year ago but shot 37 percent from the field. Junior Marcanvis Hymon started ten games last season and could start alongside Saiz up front.

Half of the roster is in their first year in the program, but a couple of them will need to make an impact right away. Miami transfer Deandre Burnett and New Mexico transfer Cullen Neal are the most likely to do that. The latter left an odd situation: a bad situation while playing for his dad, though his departure wasn’t because of any family issues. Both give them much-needed firepower on the perimeter, though neither leaps out at you as a point guard. Neal did lead his team in assists last season, though, and if Burnett emerges that might push Neal to more ball handling first.

The newcomers include one more addition who should help primarily in practice, Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak. The seven-footer showed promise as a true freshman last year.

The non-conference schedule is what you might call “sneaky good.” It isn’t loaded with high-profile games, but it has plenty that are better than one might think. They host UMass before going to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam, opening with Oral Roberts and then playing either Loyola or Saint Joseph’s in the second game. They have just one true road game in non-conference, a December 11 trip to Virginia Tech, with visits from Big Sky contender Montana, Middle Tennessee, Memphis and Murray State. In late January, they host Baylor in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

SEC play opens with a bang, as Kentucky comes to Oxford in the opener. That is also their only meeting with the Wildcats, so they will luck out there. Three of their next four are on the road, and none figure to be easy: Florida, Auburn and South Carolina.

Ole Miss was picked ninth in the 14-team SEC in the preseason coaches poll released earlier this week. With their personnel situation, that seems about right at first glance. Kennedy has done well to maximize what he has had during his tenure, though, so don’t sleep on them finishing a bit higher – and if past is indeed prologue, you can count on them to finish above .500 overall and right around that percentage in SEC play.

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