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February 16, 2007

Kennedy raising expectations at Ole Miss

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Shortly after taking over as the Ole Miss basketball coach, Andy Kennedy issued his new players the following challenge.

Enough is enough. Aren't you tired of losing?

The answer was obvious.

Not a single player on the Rebels' veteran-laden roster had experienced a winning season at Ole Miss. The Rebels had gone a combined 17-47 in Southeastern Conference games over the past four years.

"When you experience that losing feeling, you really don't want to go back to it," Ole Miss junior center Dwayne Curtis said. "That losing feeling is like a bad taste in your mouth. You don't want to taste that. Winning tastes good. We definitely want to keep tasting that."

In the last year, the Rebels have gone from tasting liver and onions to dining on filet mignon.

Picked at the beginning of the season to finish last in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division, Ole Miss instead enters Saturday's game at Arkansas in first place. The Rebels (17-8, 6-5 SEC) have won four games in a row and are the only Western Division team with a winning conference record.

Ole Miss already has clinched its first winning season since the 2001-02 team went 20-11 and reached the NCAA Tournament.

"Our sights are much higher than just finishing with a winning season and being able to finish a season strong," Kennedy said. "Our guys aspire for greater things, and I think they're playing as such."

Indeed, the Rebels just finished pulling off the kind of miraculous victory that often separates NCAA Tournament teams from NIT participants.

Louisiana State outrebounded Ole Miss 37-23 and shot 61 percent from the floor Wednesday, yet the Rebels still rallied in the final seconds to beat the Tigers 71-70. LSU owned a one-point lead and the ball before a Brian Smith steal resulted in Clarence Sanders' game-winning jumper with less than one second remaining.

"Honestly, when you look at the stats, it's a game we should have lost," Ole Miss point guard Todd Abernethy said afterward. "Then we get a chance and make a play to win. It's really hard to believe."

Abernethy has been the steadying force behind the Rebels' unbelievable surge. Kennedy says he wouldn't trade the 6-foot-1 senior for any other point guard in the conference.

"He's the heart and soul of our team," Kennedy said. "I've been fortunate in coaching to be around some quality kids and quality players, but I don't know if I've ever been around a better person than Todd Abernethy. The greatest compliment I can give him is I have two daughters at 10 and 6 (years old). I've told him I want him to marry one of them. He'll have to hold off a few years.''

In that case, Abernethy would have to display the same patience off the court that has helped make him one of the nation's steadiest point guards.

Abernethy leads the SEC in assists (5.8) and assist-turnover ratio (3.5). Abernethy has recorded 36 assists and only six turnovers during the Rebels' four-game winning streak.

His mistake-free performances have helped Ole Miss top the SEC with a turnover margin of plus-4.3.

"Each and every day, you know what you're going to get out of him," Kennedy said. "He's really grown in confidence and is really starting to believe, and I think that's really matriculating through the team."

Kennedy knew what to expect from Abernethy, who has started or served as sixth man for his entire college career. He never could have imagined how Bam Doyne and Clarence Sanders would make the leap to stardom in their senior seasons.

Doyne never had averaged more than nine points per game in his previous three seasons at Ole Miss. The 6-foot-4 guard ranks sixth in the SEC with 16.4 points per game this year and has reached the 20-point mark nine times.

The rise of Sanders is perhaps more improbable.

Sanders left the team for personal reasons after the firing of former coach Rod Barnes and missed the Rebels' final two games of the 2005-06 season. He came back after speaking with Kennedy and has provided instant offense off the bench.

The 6-foot-1 junior-college transfer leads the Rebels and ranks fifth in the SEC with 16.4 points per game and has scored in double figures 17 consecutive times. Sanders has shot 20 of 38 from 3-point range in his last four games.

These three seniors have continually displayed the tenacity that comes from knowing this year represents their last chance to reach the postseason. Their attitude has spread through the entire roster.

"Those kids are very hungry," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "They have good talent, and they're playing with an edge."

They have inherited the attitude of their coach, who had made his mark in the Magnolia State long before he arrived at Ole Miss.

Kennedy led Louisville (Miss.) High to a state title his freshman year and scored 28 points in the championship game. He was named the 1986 Mississippi high school player of the year before eventually graduating from Alabama-Birmingham as that school's second-leading all-time scorer.

He withstood the adversity that resulted from Bob Huggins' departure and led Cincinnati to a 21-13 record and an NIT appearance as the Bearcats' interim coach last season before returning home.

Kennedy's youthful enthusiasm – he turns 39 on March 13 – and his promise to adopt a fast-paced approach quickly won him the respect of his new players.

"He wasn't going to sugarcoat anything,'' Curtis said. "He told us exactly how it's going to be. It's a privilege and it's nice to play for someone who's real. He's not that old. He's in his late 30s, which is still young for a coach. Just knowing that he not too long ago experienced what we're going through, it's pretty good to have that."

Curtis said the turning point of Kennedy's first season at Ole Miss actually came in a loss.

Ole Miss visited top-ranked Florida last month and trailed by as many as 25 points early in the second half. Instead of accepting an inevitable defeat, the Rebels chipped away and cut the deficit to seven points before falling 79-70.

Even though the comeback fell short, that game made the Rebels believe they could compete with anyone. One week later, Ole Miss erased a 15-point halftime deficit at Vanderbilt and took the lead before the Commodores rallied for an 85-80 victory.

The Rebels have won four in a row since that Vanderbilt game. In the last week, they have come from behind in the second half to beat Alabama and Louisiana State.

"I can see a different look in our guys' eyes now that we've been able to beat some people," Kennedy said. "Our guys are starting to believe and starting to understand what we're capable of if we take the right approach."

They have a different look in their eyes.

And they have a different taste in their mouths.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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