How Did We Get Here?
Andy Kennedy is nothing if not consistent. In ten years at Ole Miss, his SEC record is 88-80. In eight of his ten seasons, his team has finished within a game of .500 in SEC play. Ole Miss finished 12-6 in the SEC and finished 33rd in KenPom in 2012-13, but in every other year under Kennedy, the Rebels have finished somewhere between 46 and 94 in KenPom. And, the Rebels have made the postseason in seven years out of team – though five of those were NIT trips.
And yet, both of the times Kennedy has not finished within a game of .500 have occurred in the last four years; so have two of the three years without a postseason trip.
What’s going on here?
Perhaps Kennedy is scrapping the idea of consistency in the name of upside. Kennedy’s first six years turned a program that had gone 17-47 in the SEC over Rod Barnes’ last four seasons, and produced if not a winner, at least a consistently average team. But Ole Miss wasn’t going to give Kennedy forever to just hang around .500 in the SEC, so the last few years have seen more peaks and valleys – albeit with a higher floor than what Ole Miss has seen over much of its history. Ole Miss, the only school (aside from Missouri, who’s still new to the league) to never win an SEC regular season title, is at least no longer a cellar-dweller under Kennedy.
At least in SEC play, Ole Miss was fairly average across the board: the Rebels finished 5th in the conference in offensive efficiency and 10th in defensive efficiency. They weren’t a great shooting team, but they took care of the ball and hit the offensive glass; on defense, they were good at forcing turnovers but below average at everything else. Of COURSE this team went 10-8 in the SEC, because everything about this team just screams 10-8.
But now, Ole Miss has to replace Stefan Moody, along with three other players who started 21 or more games last year. Ole Miss loses 57 percent of its minutes and 60 percent of its scoring from last season, and a lot of that is tied up in Moody, who averaged 23.6 points per game and who, on an average night last year, took 16 field goal attempts and 8 free throws. Moody took more than twice as many shot attempts (counting both free throws and field goals) as the second-highest player on Ole Miss’s team. It’s probably inaccurate to say that Moody was the Rebels’ entire offense in 2015-16... but you wouldn’t be that far off the mark, because he was a very big part of it.
Of course, with almost any player who takes that many shots for a team that’s not all that successful, there are also the inevitable accusations that Moody was a ballhog whose team will be better off without him. That criticism is blunted a bit by the fact that Moody also averaged 4.3 assists per game (which ranked 9th in the SEC). But we saw both cards played when Marshall Henderson graduated in 2014, and the difference then was that aside from Henderson, Ole Miss returned pretty much everybody else in 2014-15 — and with Moody taking over Henderson’s role in the offense (and then some), Ole Miss was good enough to make the NCAA Tournament.
This year, though, Ole Miss has a bunch of other holes to fill. The Rebels have six newcomers, but two of them have Division I experience, and a third is a junior college transfer. But even the holdovers only have limited experience.
In terms of recruiting rankings, Ole Miss has been among the weakest recruiters in the SEC in the past few years. That’s blunted a bit by the fact that the Rebels rely quite a bit on transfers — both of the juco and four-year variety — and the two Division I transfers were both four-star recruits at one time, which isn’t reflected in the recruiting rankings.
This is a pivotal year for the momentum of the Ole Miss basketball program. It’s probably not a make-or-break year for Andy Kennedy, who’s the dean of SEC coaches (which is still a weird thing to write) and is also Ole Miss’s winningest basketball coach of all-time (which, well, says a lot more about Ole Miss than it does about Kennedy).
But perhaps nobody has taken advantage of a “down” SEC more than Andy Kennedy. Now, with Ben Howland signing top recruits across the state, and with Avery Johnson and Bruce Pearl also building talented teams at Alabama and Auburn, respectively, Kennedy’s window may be closing just as Ole Miss opens a new arena. Kennedy’s still plugging along, signing unheralded three-star recruits and bringing in transfers, and this year will tell us if that approach is still going to work when some of the other schools in the SEC have stopped getting out of their own way.
|Ole Miss Backcourt|
|J.T. Escobar||4.8||1.2||0.1||0.4||0.5||0.1||-0.1||Transfer (North Florida)|
|1||Deandre Burnett||6’2”||194||JR.||0.9315||17.4||7.0||2.0||0.6||0.9||0.5||1.0||Transfer (Miami)|
|2||Cullen Neal||6’5”||195||JR.||0.9154||30.2||12.3||2.8||3.7||3.3||0.8||1.0||Grad transfer (New Mexico)|
Andy Kennedy’s offenses have frequently featured an efficient, high-usage guard: First Chris Warren, then Marshall Henderson and Stefan Moody. But with Moody graduated, it’s not clear that Ole Miss has a player capable of filling that role.
When Moody was out for a game at Mississippi State, Rasheed Brooks briefly took over the offense. Brooks scored 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting in that game, but that was his high point of the season: The 6’5” senior from Kalamazoo, Michigan, averaged 8.3 ppg and shot just 37.1 percent from the floor, 29.7 percent from 3-point range.
So Kennedy could once again look to transfers. Cullen Neal is a rare graduate transfer who has two years of eligibility remaining; last year, he averaged 12.3 ppg at New Mexico, albeit while shooting just 35 percent from the floor. Perhaps Neal can shine in an environment where he can be a role player instead of the focal point of the offense, which he wasn’t cut out for even at the Mountain West level.
Deandre Burnett, a 6’2” guard from Miami, sat out last year after transferring; in his lone year at Miami, he averaged 7.0 ppg while shooting 35.6 percent from the floor. Can any of Burnett, Brooks, or Neal improve their shooting percentages? If not, Ole Miss’s backcourt will be missing a lot of shots. Both Moody and Henderson thrived because they could make a decent percentage of shots while taking a high volume, and it’s not clear if any of these three are capable of that.
If not, Ole Miss does have three young guards with some upside, but Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey and Terence Davis played relatively small roles last year, while Breein Tyree is a freshman.
Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, a 6’4” sophomore from Memphis, didn’t join the team until midseason last year. He did score 16 points against Mississippi State and shot 48.1 percent from the floor, but he was also fairly turnover-prone.
Davis, the 6’5” sophomore from Southaven, played just 6.6 minutes per game last year but did have a couple moments, like scoring 7 points in 24 minutes against South Carolina.
Tyree, a 6’2” freshman from Somerset, New Jersey, is a three-star recruit who could find playing time at the point.
With the backcourt unsettled, any one of the three youngsters could see more playing time.
|Ole Miss Frontcourt|
|Terry Brutus||7.1||0.6||0.9||0.0||0.3||0.0||0.0||Grad transfer (Samford)|
|50||Justas Furmanivicius||6’6”||200||JR.||0.8500||Transfer (Three Rivers CC)|
|44||Dominik Olejniczak||7’0”||249||FR.||NR||Transfer (Drake); sitting out 2016-17|
In Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss has one of the SEC’s top big men, if he’s a bit unheralded. The 6’9” senior from Madrid has steadily improved his output, going from 5.1 ppg and 5.6 rpg as a freshman, to 7.6 and 5.5 as a sophomore, to 11.7 and 8.7 as a junior last year. And Saiz’s junior year might have been even better if not for an eye injury that cost him six games in January and February; Ole Miss went 3-3 during that stretch (with two of the wins coming against Missouri and Auburn). Saiz wasn’t quite the same after returning, either, dropping from 12.7 ppg and 9.9 rpg pre-injury to 9.7 and 6.5 rebounds per game afterward, though he did go for 23 and 11 in Ole Miss’s regular season finale against Tennessee. It’s actually worth considering how Ole Miss’s season might have played out with a healthy Saiz.
Now, with Stefan Moody gone, Saiz could become the focal point of the offense (if Kennedy doesn’t like what he sees from the guards) and Saiz could well post 15-and-10 type numbers, or better.
Alongside Saiz, Marcanvis Hymon came on strong as a sophomore and could be poised for a big year as a junior. Hymon barely played as a freshman, appearing in just six games and playing 51 minutes for the entire season (Why Kennedy didn’t just redshirt him is beyond me). As a sophomore, Hymon played in every game and started 10, and he averaged 6.1 ppg and 5.2 rpg.
In spite of limited playing time and being a bit undersized, the 6’7” junior from Memphis was seventh in the SEC in block percentage and could emerge as a defensive force with more playing time. Of course, as is so often the case with young big men, foul trouble was a problem: Hymon committed 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes and fouled out three times, which was probably a reason he only played 17.7 minutes a night.
The depth behind Saiz and Hymon is questionable at best, though. 7-footer Dominik Olejniczak is sitting out this year as a transfer, so Ole Miss will have to rely on a pair of freshmen for depth up front. Nate Morris, a 6’9” freshman from Lancaster, Texas, is probably the better bet for early playing time; though unpolished, at 240 pounds he already has the size to bang down low in the SEC. Karlis Silins, a 6’10” freshman from Riga, Latvia, is an unknown: recruiting services didn’t rate him, and about all I know about him is based on a minute-and-a-half, poorly-edited highlight tape from Latvia. So, if you know Silins is about to wreck shop in the SEC, you’re probably higher on Ole Miss than I am.
Andy Kennedy also added Justas Furmanivicius, a 6’6” junior from Kaunas, Lithuania, by way of Three Rivers CC, where he averaged 12.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg (It’s really a shame that Estonian forward Janari Joesaar left the team a couple of years back, otherwise Ole Miss would have hit the Baltic States trifecta). Furmanivicius should add rebounding off the bench, though he’s a bit undersized to play inside in the SEC.
|Ole Miss Basketball Schedule|
|11/3||Morehouse (exhibition)||6:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/11||Tennesse-Martin||6:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/14||Massachusetts||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|11/18-21||Paradise Jam (St. Thomas, VI)|
|11/24||Montana||3:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|11/30||Middle Tennessee||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/3||Memphis||12:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/11||at Virginia Tech||11:00 AM||ESPNU|
|12/15||Murray State||7:00 PM||SEC Network+|
|12/19||Bradley||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|12/22||South Alabama||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|1/3||at Florida||6:00 PM||ESPNU|
|1/7||at Auburn||5:00 PM||SEC Network|
|1/14||at South Carolina||5:30 PM||ESPNU|
|1/17||Tennessee||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|1/21||at Missouri||2:30 PM||SEC Network|
|1/25||Texas A&M||6:30 PM||ESPN2|
|1/31||Mississippi State||6:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/4||at Vanderbilt||2:00 PM||ESPNU|
|2/8||at Tennessee||5:30 PM||SEC Network|
|2/11||Auburn||5:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/14||LSU||8:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/18||at Arkansas||5:00 PM||SEC Network|
|2/21||at Mississippi State||8:00 PM||ESPN2|
|2/25||Missouri||2:30 PM||SEC Network|
|3/1||at Alabama||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
|3/4||South Carolina||7:30 PM||SEC Network|
The Rebels’ nonconference schedule is sneaky tough: There aren’t a ton of big names on it, but Montana, Middle Tennessee, and Murray State should finish at the top of their conferences, and Memphis should improve almost entirely by virtue of Josh Pastner no longer coaching them. The Paradise Jam field is a bit underwhelming; Creighton and NC State should be pretty good, but both are on the opposite side of the bracket from Ole Miss. There’s also a road trip to Virginia Tech, which could be a tournament team, and Baylor in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Ole Miss’s conference schedule, on the other hand? Somehow, the Rebels drew two games apiece with the four worst teams in the conference last year. They also get their lone matchups with both Kentucky and Texas A&M at home. There’s a good chance that Ole Miss’s SEC record won’t be a good reflection of their actual performance.
Ole Miss came in 10th in the poll of seven TSK contributors, with a high of 5th and a low of 12th. That sounds about right: Andy Kennedy consistently finishes right around the middle of the SEC, but this year’s roster is lacking in a lot of ways. The frontcourt does have a couple of nice pieces in Saiz and Hymon, but one of these is foul-prone and the depth behind them could be an issue. On the other hand, there’s almost nothing proven in the backcourt: The guards are either young and inexperienced, or they’re experienced but have been underwhelming.
So ranking Ole Miss in the preseason is basically a question of how much you believe in Andy Kennedy to make something out of this group, and I’m not quite a believer. I won’t say this is a make-or-break year for him (I could see him getting fired if Ole Miss goes 12-18 or something like that), but it’s an important year for the momentum of the program. Kennedy has shown that he can make Ole Miss into a rather consistent, mid-level SEC program, but he hasn’t shown that he can take the next step and turn the Rebels into a consistent contender. Maybe nobody could do that, but with the new Pavilion at Ole Miss opening, one of the biggest things holding the program back is no longer an issue.
With only two seniors on the roster, just finishing in the upper half of the SEC standings would be a big deal going forward. But a 12th-place finish (as I predicted, though I’m at the low end) might end up being difficult to recover from. I can see either outcome happening, but I personally lean toward the latter.