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Ole Miss basketball starts seeking identity with ‘athletic’ team

Andy Kennedy will use the next five weeks to try to figure out exactly what the identity of another mix of holdovers and newcomers will be for the upcoming season.

But Ole Miss’ men’s basketball coach believes he’s already got a good idea.

The Rebels have officially begun practice for the 2017-18 season with one of the best recruiting classes in school history joining six contributors back from last year’s team. It’s a group, Kennedy said, that’s helped Ole Miss address the issues that kept the Rebels from being an NCAA Tournament team for the second straight year.

One of the differences is evident just a handful of practices in.

“I think we’re very athletic and versatile,” Kennedy said. “I think we can be a much more attacking team. Last year, we were a little bit more defensive-oriented as it related to our mindset and counterpunches as opposed to being a downhill, running team and guys that could be on the attack constantly. I think this team has the identity to do so.”

Kennedy has pieced together one of the deepest backcourts in his 12-year tenure with Memphis graduate transfer Markel Crawford and freshmen Illya Tyrtyshnik and Devontae Shuler joining Deandre Burnett and Terence Davis, the Rebels’ top two scorers from last season, as well as sophomore point guard Breein Tyree. The 6-foot-5 Crawford averaged more than 12 points a game last season for Memphis, but his biggest asset may be on the other end of the court with his ability to stay in front of ball handlers on the wing, something the Rebels struggled to do last season.

Kennedy called Crawford the Rebels’ best on-ball defender while Shuler, Ole Miss’ highest-rated signee, will also be expected to make an immediate impact with his defense. The newcomers are trying to help the Rebels cut down on the 76.3 points a game they allowed last season and the 42.5-percent clip they allowed opponents to shoot from the field.

“We understand that if you want to win, you’ve got to play defense,” Burnett said. “It starts with the guys on the perimeter. Nothing is free and making it hard for the other team. I think we’ve got a better understanding that in order to win, you’ve got to play defense.”

In the frontcourt, Ole Miss has the unenviable task of trying to replace the production of All-SEC forward Sebastian Saiz, who finished his career as the second-leading rebounder in school history. But Kennedy likes the combination he has in Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak and former junior college All-American Bruce Stevens.

Olejniczak, a 7-footer, gives the Rebels the kind of rim protector that’s been rare during Kennedy’s tenure, but he’ll have to get up to speed in the SEC after sitting out last season to fulfill NCAA transfer rules. He averaged 6.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and blocked 21 shots in 20 games for Drake as a freshman.

“He really works,” Kennedy said. “His body is in great shape. He’s got great enthusiasm. He wants to learn. He’s very, very coachable. I know he’s excited to have the opportunity to be on this stage. He’s going to have a big impact for us this year.”

Stevens’ athleticism should give Olejniczak more room to operate inside with his ability to extend defenses to the perimeter. The 6-8 Stevens made more than 35 percent of his 3-pointers last season at Jones County Junior College.

“Bruce can really stretch,” Kennedy said. “I would be shocked if he didn’t make 50-plus 3s this year, which is going to stretch the floor and allow our bigs to move around.”

Marcanvis Hymon, Justas Furmanavicius and 6-11 forward Karlis Silins, who’s returning from a torn ACL, are other frontcourt options. Kennedy is assessing how to use them all ahead of the Rebels’ season opener against Louisiana on Nov. 10.

“I think I know how I want us to play, but are we going to be able to play that way and what adjustments will we have to make as it relates to fitting to the strengths of our personnel?” Kennedy said. “That’s what we’re trying to find out right now.”