• 73°

Here comes Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss basketball

We still have a lot of baseball to go this year, so talking about an indoor sport like basketball seems out of place.

It’s just that I have been watching the work done by Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy and comrades closely and it dawned in this third week of April that the Rebel basketball team is well positioned for a return to Top 25 rankings and a run at the Sweet 16, if not better.

There’s no punchline coming.

Early this past season such talk would have been out of place, and a punchline would have been appropriate. With a group of transfers struggling to find their place and young players not yet ready for league play, Andy Kennedy was closer to being ushered out of town than making plans for future NCAA tournaments.

When Middle Tennessee romped Ole Miss in the first half at the otherwise dazzling Pavilion on campus, and Kentucky did the same thing in the same place, and so did Georgia, well, grumblings from many fans were loud and clear.

“Should have left him in Cincinnati,” said more than one, referring to a time seven or eight years ago when Kennedy got arrested after a night on the town following a game for harassing a cab driver.

He’s never quite connected with the fan base on an emotional level, either, which is really only a problem when Middle Tennessee gets up 20 on your team at home.

Winning is the ultimate connection, and that’s why what Kennedy is piecing together at Ole Miss, starting with a late season run in which transfers and young players gelled, combined with stellar if not determined recruiting, is head turning.

It’s the unmistakable look of a winning formula.

The late season run this year that ended with a home loss to Georgia Tech in the third round of the NIT Tournament was fueled by the rise of gritty and dazzling young players including Breein Tyree and Terence Davis. By the close of this season the players had established themselves in the surging SEC as forces to be reckoned with.

And Davis individually went from sophomore trying to find his way in the early season to ESPN highlight reel you can build a franchise on in the latter half of the season.

Already, Kennedy had signed one of his best recruiting classes ever, with signees of national note. But recently this winning formula added a couple of final key factors: two signees that can make a 20-plus winner a championship contender.

Kennedy and company have landed in the past week-and-a-half junior college transfer Bruce Stevens, who became a JUCO All-American playing for former Rebel Rahim Lockhart, and Memphis transfer Markel Crawford, who averaged 12.8 points a game this past season for the Tigers.

It’s still the offseason, of course. But winning is more about having the right players than anything else. Remember, for example, when Ole Miss football landed its best-ever recruiting class a few years back?

That ended in a Sugar Bowl victory.

Now, Kennedy has pieced together the best signing class in Ole Miss basketball history including a couple of players who can contribute in a big way immediately. They join up with a cast that by the end of this year had the markings of true winners.

So, it’s only April, with a lot of baseball left to go and football after that. But Ole Miss basketball and Andy Kennedy have moved into position to win, likely big, these next few seasons.

And that’s something fans can will be able to connect with.

David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. He can be reached at david.magee@oxfordeagle.com.