OXFORD, Miss. – Coach Andy Kennedy has plenty of positives to tout as he enters his fifth season at Mississippi.
The Rebels have averaged 21 wins during his first four seasons, won two Southeastern Conference Western Division titles and made the NIT semifinals twice.
But there's one major thing missing — no trips to the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss had opportunities in both 2008 and last season, rising into the national rankings before fading during conference play in February and March.
Now with seniors Chris Warren and Zach Graham leading the team, the Rebels hope to have the staying power to finally make the tournament for the first time since 2002. The eight-year drought is the longest for any SEC school.
"I think I'm pretty much like any other coach — I really like my team in October," Kennedy said. "Now I hope I like them in February and March. There's been a lot of talk about the pieces that aren't here anymore, but I'm excited about the pieces that are. This could be as good as any team I've had here."
Warren, the speedy 5-foot-10 point guard, is the leader. He's on track to become one of the school's leading scorers and averaged 17.2 points last season. Graham, a 6-6 guard, averaged 9.2 points and 3.1 rebounds last season.
But the losses for the Rebels — which include three starters — are substantial. Guard Terrico White, who scored 15.1 points per game, was taken by the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the NBA draft. Forward Murphy Holloway, who averaged 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds, transferred to South Carolina to be closer to his family. Eniel Polynice, who led the team with nearly four assists per game, transferred to Seton Hall after clashing with Kennedy last season.
"We've made some changes, but all the guys who are here want to be here and that's the most important thing," junior forward Terrance Henry said. "They were good players, but we've got plenty of other good players to have a great season."
Kennedy is confident he can fill in those gaps. Henry and sophomore Reggie Buckner, who both played large roles off the bench last season, will most likely start. Henry's 6-foot-9 size is useful on the perimeter or the interior, and he can guard much smaller players because of his quickness. Buckner, who's also 6-9, blocked 64 shots last season — a school record.
"Reg had flashes last year that showed his true potential," Kennedy said. "He broke the blocks record despite being hampered by a late-season (ankle) injury ... He's bigger, stronger, more confident. His capacity for work has increased and his approach is more mature."
Guard Nick Williams, a transfer from Indiana, has already turned into one of the team's vocal leaders after sitting out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Then there's two freshmen — guard Dundrecous Nelson and forward Demarco Cox — who figure to enter the playing rotation immediately.
Cox came to Ole Miss at 6-8 and 323 pounds, according to Kennedy, but has worked hard to get down to about 295 pounds and will provide plenty of bulk in the paint. Kennedy said he'd like to see Cox around 285 pounds, and is confident he'll be there soon.
"He has the highest work capacity for any high school big I've ever been around," Kennedy said. "He's an incredible worker. Incredible drive. No nonsense. There's not a little silliness to Demarco Cox when he's between those lines and he wants to be a good player ... He's going to be a tremendous player for us."
Steadman Short, a 6-9 junior college transfer from Chipola (Fla.), is also expected to add depth in the frontcourt.
"I like the chemistry we have and these guys are really, really hungry," Henry said. "We've been so close to the NCAA tournament a few times, but we just haven't been able to finish out the way we've wanted. But I think this team is tougher and has the leadership to get us to the tournament."