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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Ole Miss

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To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: the Marshall Henderson-less Ole Miss Rebels.

Okay, it might not be this bad.
Okay, it might not be this bad.
Kevin C. Cox

We're counting down the days to basketball season, and to get everybody up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of projected finish (according to me, anyway), so as this is the fifth of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 10th in the conference.

Ole Miss Rebels 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

Andy Kennedy is Ole Miss's all-time winningest basketball coach, one of three currently coaching in the SEC who are their school's all-time wins leader (the others: Billy Donovan and, of course, Kevin Stallings.)  But in Kennedy's case, that fact seems to say a lot more about the history of Ole Miss basketball than anything else.  The previous wins leader, B.L. "Country" Graham, coached the Rebels from 1949-62 and actually had a losing record at the school.  This remains the only active member (counting the 1991 expansion, but not the 2012 expansion) to have never won a regular season SEC title, although Ole Miss did win the SEC West a few times, and they've won the SEC Tournament twice.

Kennedy has shown, with one notable exception, a remarkable level of consistency in his eight years in Oxford.  The problem for his job security is that, well, the program has been consistently average. If you like finishing right around .500 in the SEC (and keep in mind, Kennedy's been coaching in the SEC during a down cycle for the league) and making the NIT more often than not (five appearances in eight years), then Andy Kennedy is your guy.

Some Ole Miss fans, in spite of a long history (with the exception of a few years in the late 1990s/early 2000s) of being consistently worse than what they've been under Kennedy, got the idea a couple of years ago that they might do better than this, and Kennedy entered 2012-13 squarely on the hot seat.  But Kennedy had other plans, bringing in three-point marksman and noted model citizen Marshall Henderson from the juco ranks to pair with the inside duo of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, and the result was 27 wins (tied for the most in Ole Miss history), an SEC Tournament title, and an NCAA Tournament appearance.

With Henderson returning last year, expectations for Ole Miss were fairly high, but it turned out that the Rebels missed the departed Holloway and Buckner more than a lot of people expected.  The result was that Ole Miss slumped a bit to 19-14, 9-9 in the SEC, and missed the postseason for only the second time under Kennedy.

That puts Kennedy back on the hot seat entering 2014-15, though he's certainly not on the hottest seat in the SEC (that belongs to Anthony Grant, and possibly the other Kennedy.)  With Henderson gone, Kennedy brought in a whole bunch of new bodies knowing that his job could be on the line.  Will it be enough?

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.

Losses
  • Marshall Henderson (31.1 mpg, 19.0 ppg, 2.0 apg; graduated)
  • Derrick Millinghaus (18.0 mpg, 6.6 ppg, 2.3 apg; transfer/SE Louisiana)
  • Demarco Cox (16.6 mpg, 4.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg; transfer/Georgia Tech)
  • Janari Joesaar (12 games, 4.3 mpg, 2.3 ppg, 1.5 rpg; transfer/Texas-Pan American)
  • Jerron Martin (2 games, 3.5 mpg, 1.5 ppg, 0.5 apg; transfer/South Plains JC)
Starting Five
  • PG Jarvis Summers (6'3", 186 Sr., Jackson, MS)
  • SG Roderick Lawrence (6'5", 185 Jr., Orlando, FL); #3 JC SG and #15 overall JC
  • SF Anthony Perez (6'9", 213 Jr., Cumana, Venezuela)
  • PF Sebastian Saiz (6'9", 233 Soph., Madrid, Spain)
  • C Aaron Jones (6'9", 220 Sr., Gautier, MS)
Top Reserves
  • G Martavious Newby (6'3", 210 Jr., Memphis, TN)
  • G Terence Smith (6'4", 195 Sr., Russellville, AL); transfer/Tennessee-Martin
  • F M.J. Rhett (6'9", 240 Sr., Columbia, SC); transfer/Tennessee State
  • G LaDarius White (6'6", 211 Sr., McComb, MS)
  • G Stefan Moody (5'10", 179 Jr., Kissimmee, FL); #9 JC SG and #30 overall JC
Bench
  • F Marcanvis Hymon (6'6", 207 Fr., Memphis, TN); #40 SF and #153 overall
  • C Dwight Coleby (6'9", 236 Sr., Nassau, Bahamas)
  • F Terry Brutus (6'6", 237 Soph., Spring Valley, NY); redshirted 2013-14

When reading the various previews of Ole Miss floating around the interwebs, I've devised a fairly simple way of determining if the author actually watched the Rebels play basketball last year: Does the author think Ole Miss will miss Marshall Henderson?

If you just checked out the stats, you saw his volume of shots (16.2 field goal attempts per game) and shooting percentages (39.1 percent on twos, 34.2 percent on threes) and might come to the conclusion that Ole Miss is better off with someone else taking those shots -- specifically, Jarvis Summers, who shot 48.6 percent from the floor while taking 11.8 shots per game.  But watching the team last year told a different story.  When you watched Ole Miss last year (or, hell, when you looked at the stats), you saw that the Rebels didn't really have any more appealing options than Henderson firing up 23-footers and making a fair percentage of them.

And if you watched the two games in which Henderson didn't play, you might have figured out that Summers profited a lot from the attention given to Henderson.  Summers is an effective distributor and a decent scorer, but he's not the kind of player you can gear an offense around; this became apparent when Ole Miss slogged through a narrow win over Auburn and lost to Mississippi State in Henderson's absence.  In 2012-13, if defenses paid too much attention to Henderson, Holloway and Buckner would kill them down low.  But last season, the Rebel bigs were either too inconsistent to be reliable (Sebastian Saiz, Anthony Perez) or were more defensive-minded (Aaron Jones, Dwight Coleby.)  Basically, Henderson wasn't getting much help last year, and the team clearly would have been worse off without him.

All of this isn't to say that Ole Miss will definitely be worse in 2014-15, though.  But it's to say that if the Rebels do improve this year, it won't be because Henderson isn't around any more.  The Rebels return 69 percent of their minutes from last season, fourth most in the SEC, and Henderson is really the only significant loss.

Any improvement here starts up front.  Last year, the Rebels had a strange combination of blocking a lot of shots (13.3 percent, fourth in the league) yet giving up a high shooting percentage anyway (48.8 percent on twos, fourth-worst in the league.)  It seemed that Ole Miss could stop your first shot, but not your second, and there were a ton of second attempts, with the Rebels finishing 12th in the league in defensive rebounding.  The shot blockers from last year are all back -- among them, Jones, Saiz, Perez, and Coleby combined to reject 4.1 shots per game -- but to shore up the rebounding, Kennedy brought in graduate transfer M.J. Rhett, who averaged 9.1 rebounds a game at Tennessee State.

But Rhett may not even start.  While this team needs help on the boards, it would be even better if the Rebels had an offensive threat down low, and Rhett likely isn't going to provide that.  Anthony Perez (22 points vs. South Carolina, 21 points vs. Kentucky) and Sebastian Saiz (20 points vs. LSU) both showed flashes last year, but neither showed any sort of consistency.  Saiz is really the key to this season, as a solid rebounder who could also develop into a consistent offensive threat down low.

Aaron Jones is what he is, a rim protector extraordinaire who isn't much of an offensive threat and strangely doesn't rebound well.  Dwight Coleby is similarly gifted at protecting the rim and limited offensively, and will probably be available off the bench.  The Rebels also have a pair of undersized bigs in sophomore Terry Brutus, who redshirted last year after tearing his ACL, and freshman Marcanvis Hymon, who's athletically gifted but also only 6'6".  Neither projects to have a big role on this year's team.

Ole Miss is set at the point with Summers, but it would be really great if somebody else could take some of the scoring load off him, because it's probably not a good thing if Summers is the featured scorer on this offense.  That help could come from up front, but it could also come from one of a number of wings.  The two holdovers from last year, LaDarius White and Martavious Newby, are fairly limited.  White had a good year in 2012-13 but went into a horrible shooting slump last year, likely the result of defenses spending more time guarding the perimeter; if he returns to form he could start at the two.  Newby managed to shoot 55.1 percent from the floor last year, but in spite of playing fairty regularly, also managed to only take 49 shots all season.

It's apparent that Kennedy didn't trust either White or Newby to provide the scoring punch to replace Henderson, so he brought in three newcomers on the wings: Roderick Lawrence (13.1 ppg at South Plains JC), Stefan Moody (17.7 ppg at Kilgore JC), and Terence Smith (14.6 ppg at Tennessee-Martin.)  One of these three (or two, if Kennedy wants to go with a smaller lineup) will start on the wing, and all should see significant minutes.  Moody, who played his freshman year at Florida Atlantic, might be the most interesting candidate as an undersized two-guard who nonetheless shot 47.6 percent from the floor at the juco level (including 34.5 percent from three); he'll also serve as the backup to Summers, who's the only true point guard on the roster.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/7 Delta State (exh.)
11/14 Charleston Southern
11/17 at Troy
11/20 Southern
11/23 Northern Arizona
11/28 vs. Creighton
11/29 Emerald Coast Classic
12/4 TCU
12/7 at Oregon
12/13 Western Kentucky
12/18 Coastal Carolina
12/22 vs. SE Missouri State (Southaven, MS)
12/30 at Dayton
1/3 Austin Peay

Conference Home-and-Home

LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State

Conference Home

South Carolina, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Vanderbilt

Conference Road

Kentucky, Missouri, Auburn, Alabama

While the non-conference schedule is light on big names, there's more substance here than first meets the eye.  There's that nasty road trip to Dayton at the end of December; Coastal Carolina won the Big South last year and figures to do so again; Southern, Northern Arizona, Western Kentucky, and SEMO are expecting to contend for conference titles this year.  Post-Dougie McBuckets Creighton in the Emerald Coast Classic won't be as tough as you'd think, but Ole Miss will see either Cincinnati or MTSU in the second game.  Drawing TCU in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge is kind of a disappointment, and Oregon is probably going to be down, but at least the latter game along with Troy are on the road.  On paper, at least, this schedule is the right mix of "we're breaking in a new lineup" and "hey, in case we're on the bubble in mid-February we might not want to schedule a bunch of cupcakes."

Ole Miss also faces, at least on paper, one of the tougher SEC schedules.  Other than the obligatory home-and-home with Mississippi State, the other four teams the Rebels will see twice are likely NCAA contenders (or at least bubble teams), and they do have a road affair with Kentucky.  The downside is that if it doesn't work out, Ole Miss could tumble down the SEC standings.  But at least if the Rebels are in the NCAA conversation, their strength of schedule probably won't be an issue.

Outlook

This is roughly the point in the preview where you can see a potential NCAA Tournament team without chugging a few cans of Four Loko, and if it seems strange to be reading that about the projected 10th-place team in the conference, that's because (at least in my mind) teams 5 through 10 in the preview are basically interchangeable.  All have some reasons for optimism but also reasons to be skeptical.

For Ole Miss, the sheer volume of transfers and young, projectable bigs is the reason for optimism.  The teams below either are hoping for freshmen to come in and play well, don't have a lot of proven talent and/or are hoping for one or two guys to step up their games.  Kennedy has a solid scoring point at his disposal in Summers and a solid defensive stopper in Jones, and also has two jucos and two graduate transfers as well as two young bigs (Saiz and Perez) with potential.  Basically, Kennedy is that guy buying ten scratch-and-win lottery tickets at the corner store because when you buy that many, one or two of them have to be a winner, right?

The reason for skepticism?  Well, first of all, that approach still has fairly limited upside.  Even if you hit on a couple of those scratch and wins, the payout is $50, and even if Kennedy hits on a couple of the transfers or underclassmen, the upside appears to be fourth place in the SEC and maybe being one of the last few teams in the NCAA Tournament.

The other reason for skepticism is that in terms of NCAA appearances, Kennedy's approach has worked exactly once in eight years.  Basically, you know what you're getting with Andy Kennedy: 20 wins, a middling SEC record, and the NIT.  He won't drive you off a cliff, but he's not exactly going to drive you to the top of the mountain, either.

All of that is why Kennedy's job is on the line, and if that point wasn't clear, the fact that Kennedy has a total of nine upperclassmen on the roster -- including four who have never played for Ole Miss before -- ought to drive that point home.  Kennedy knows he's in win-now mode, because if he doesn't win, Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork already has Michael White on speed dial.