Ole Miss basketball must step up next season

Yesterday was Selection Sunday and suffice to say, it wasn’t a positive day for Ole Miss basketball. No, the Rebels were not snubbed for a NCAA Tournament bid like Monmouth or Saint Mary’s, but following a 20-12(10-8) campaign, it was notable they were also left out as an at-large for a National Invitation Tournament bid.

Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the eighth 20-win season in his 10th season at Ole Miss, Andy Kennedy and his team fell short, in large part due to a weak out-of-conference schedule. The inability to win on the road was also a detractor as they were 6-7 at opposing venues and 2-3 on neutral courts. However, a promising 7-2 record inside The Pavilion, with notable wins over Georgia, Alabama and Vanderbilt, is something fans would like to see Kennedy build upon.

The Pavilion provides a sense of hope for Rebels fans, and for Kennedy, the program can take the next step. The veteran coach has long shown his ability to win with very little, as he just wrapped up his 10th consecutive winning season. Interesting, as that is something only one other SEC program_you can guess the other_and 16 other schools nationwide have done in that time span. HINT: Their mascot is a Wildcat and they love the color blue.

Dec 13, 2014; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Andy Kennedy has a discussion with the referee during the game against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at C.M.Tad Smith Coliseum. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers defeat the Mississippi Rebels 79-72. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 13, 2014; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Andy Kennedy has a discussion with the referee during the game against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at C.M.Tad Smith Coliseum. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers defeat the Mississippi Rebels 79-72. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

The 212 wins over his tenure makes him the 4th winningest coach in their first 10 seasons in SEC history. Kennedy’s program has been marked its unprecedented consistency and its abnormal win total over the past decade, but falling short of a third trip to the Big Dance in four seasons also mark’s the program’s failure to take the next step.

Perhaps the glorious new facility can help give the program a shot in the arm and a boost in the right direction.

In fact, taking that next step could be crucial as the landscape of college basketball is certainly shifting. In the past 20 wins was a benchmark, and almost certainly, granted you entrance into the Big Dance. While some might argue with an additional four spots added in recent years, college basketball is lacking talent due to one-and-dones. WRONG.

With the emergence of mid-majors and the decline of conferences like the SEC, the scope has widened. Mid-majors are now examined fully and their resumes are taken into consideration just as much as the “big boys.” Not just Gonzaga, Butler, Xavier, VCU or the other usual suspects, but each and every mid-major that plays a tough conference and accumulates enough road wins.

Photo via the Clarion Ledger

Photo via the Clarion Ledger

Pair that with the fact that the SEC has made increasing efforts to return to where it has been and Ole Miss is in danger of being left out of the fun. Top-level coaches have begun to make their way to SEC programs, because well, money talks. Recruiting has ramped up in basketball and we all know when the SEC makes efforts to recruit, it can do some damage (see football).

However, football is helped by the prime geographical location of talent pools, but it has expanded its footprint. Basketball, in turn, must do the same. Now that Ole Miss has committed itself financially to basketball, it is imperative that Kennedy take the next step, while also maintaining the consistency that has gained him respect from those nationally who understand the sport.

There’s no better place to start than next season, because why not? The Rebels just missed postseason play for the third time during the Kennedy administration and must make a statement next season. They must because sports are all about the here and now, and following a year where the program was dormant in March after opening a brand new arena in January, no one will remember those two tournament appearances if next season follows the same pattern as the 2015-16 season did.

Mandatory Credit: Evan Pike-USA TODAY Sports

First, many fans are likely to lower expectations because of Stefan Moody’s graduation, but I remind you that Kennedy’s program just seems to always move on from big stars. I like to think his program goes from guard-to-guard. Todd Abernathy and Bam Doyne, to Chris Warren and Zach Graham, to Jarvis Summers and Marshall Henderson and recently to, well, Moody. Next up appears to be Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey and Deandre Burnett.

One thing that Kennedy does well is find a scorer and put him in a position to do just that, score. He takes good scorers and makes them great scorers. Look for that pattern to continue with the Miami transfer, Burnett. Also for Burnett is the benefit from having sat for a year in the program, and not only watched Moody, but learned about what his role will be next season and prepared accordingly.

The signing of Breein Tyree is sure to impact the guard spot, as well. He fits the mold of some of the aforementioned Kennedy understudies and could be his next great guard, however, his role next season is likely as an effective bench player who will provide scoring and energy.

Mar 16, 2015; Dayton, OH, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Andy Kennedy during practice at UD Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 16, 2015; Dayton, OH, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Andy Kennedy during practice at UD Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The wing spot returns experience as well with Rasheed Brooks coming back after proving he can score the basketball from beyond the arc as well as being able to keep his defender honest by occasionally taking it in the lane. However, Brooks has to become more consistent because at times it was easy to forget he was even a member of the team. But his rebounding and defense really came on as the season progressed.

While it will be difficult to replace some of the scoring spurts Anthony Perez will leave behind, the bigger task will be in replacing the play-making ability of Martavious Newby. Yes, he was atrocious on the offensive end this season but no one seemed to be in the correct position more. He always seemed to come up with big steals, track down loose balls or effectively crash the boards on both ends.

There seems to be an heir apparent, though, and with a skill set better suited for the offensive end. Terrance Davis long considered playing football, not only coming out of Southaven High school, but also after arriving in Oxford. However, it seems Davis was able to carve out a role and show the player he can be due to Newby battling injuries in 2015-16.

Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Losing Dwight Coleby last offseason was crippling to the Rebels’ front court  for this season, but with the increased production from Sebastian Saiz and emergence of Marcanvis Hymon, Ole Miss held its own down low. There is help on the way, though, in the form of junior college big Tyrek Coger and Texas prep star Nate Morris.

However, Kennedy is sure to be on the lookout for a grad transfer to be his stretch four for the 2016-17 season, to replace the shooting ability and size Tomasz Gielo leaves behind. Coger will be a player that should provide an offensive presence down low and will help immensely as a back-to-the-basket scorer and backup to Saiz.

Hymon showed he can rebound much bigger than his size and will be an effective stopper throughout his career. Morris will also fit that mold in time.

There’s no question that Kennedy will also be on the lookout for a wing or guard who can score the ball on the grad transfer market this spring, as well. And while the roster for next season is sure to look much different than it does now, one thing is for sure.

Ole Miss basketball will move on and it will be competitive and consistent. History shows us that, but Kennedy and the Rebel program must buck history and take the next step or it could get lost in the “madness” that is modern college basketball.