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March 26, 2013

McCready: Season one to build on for Rebels

Ole Miss could be _ perhaps even should be _ waking up in Los Angeles today and practicing in the Staples Center on the eve of the program's second-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance.

Eleven missed free throws, a missed block out, a missed 3-pointer from the top of the key, a foul on an attempted offensive rebound, a flawed offensive possession and a blown call by a referee killed that chance Sunday night in Kansas City.

So instead of chasing their dreams in Hollywood, the Rebels are back in Oxford, reflecting on the roller coaster season that was 2012-13 and facing the prospect of replacing seniors Murphy Holloway, Reginald Buckner and Nick Williams.

The team that eliminated the Rebels Sunday, La Salle, faces Wichita State in Los Angeles late Thursday. Seeing the Explorers vie for a spot in the Elite Eight will be painful for Ole Miss, but the day will come when the Rebels look back on this season with immense pride.

Ole Miss will hang a couple of banners in Tad Smith Coliseum, honoring a team that won the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn., and snapped the program's 11-year NCAA tournament absence. When the Rebels knocked off Wisconsin in Kansas City last Friday, it marked just the fourth NCAA tournament win in program history. By any standard, Ole Miss' 27-9 record and postseason accomplishments would be satisfying. By Ole Miss' standards, the results were remarkable.

Fans packed Ole Miss' antiquated arena all season and found a renewed interest in basketball, likely energizing efforts to raise the capital necessary to build the building that will replace Tad Smith.

Next season, the Rebels will look to not only maintain the momentum the program gained over the past few weeks but also to build on it. It won't be an easy task.

It's likely Ole Miss, thanks to the presence of senior-to-be Marshall Henderson, will be very much in the national conversation. Henderson led the SEC in scoring, picked up tens of thousands of Twitter followers and made more than his fair share of enemies in his first season in Oxford.

Henderson was a great story. He has the tools to be a great player, though he must improve his ball-handling, his defense and his offensive efficiency if he wants to become known for something other than his green light and explosive personality. Speaking of, Henderson will be a target every time the Rebels leave Oxford next season. He simply has to learn to ignore opposing fans looking to push his buttons. If he can, Henderson has the game to squash those catcalls and verbal barbs with his jumper and not with his tongue.

Henderson should be part of a talented, experienced backcourt. Jarvis Summers returns at point guard, as does his backup, Derrick Millinghaus. Martavious Newby has the tools to be a defensive stopper capable of providing instant offense, but his game needs refinement and consistency. This will be a vital offseason for the Memphian.

The same certainly holds true for sophomore-to-be Anthony Perez. Perez has worlds of skill, but he must get stronger if he's going to be able to score close to the rim in the SEC and against elite college competition.

Terry Brutus gained some invaluable experience backing up Holloway and Buckner after Aaron Jones and Demarco Cox were lost for the season to injuries. Both Jones and Cox will have to play huge roles next season. Otherwise, Andy Kennedy will be incredibly reliant on a trio of freshmen - Dwight Coleby, Sebastian Saiz and Janari Joessar.

The wildcard in 2012-13 could be LaDarius White, who played significant minutes at point guard in Ole Miss' season-saving six-game run this month and who has shown flashes of brilliance as an on-ball defender who can also flash to the rim and hit an occasional 3-pointer on offense.

The Rebels desperately need someone besides Henderson to emerge as a consistent scorer if they want to return to the NCAA tournament and make another run. Kennedy will likely look for another recruit in the backcourt to take some of the scoring load from Henderson, but White is a natural candidate to fill that role.

All of that can wait, of course. For now, the Rebels have earned the right to bask in the glory of their accomplishments, even if there's a tinge of regret that today doesn't include a southern California sunrise and a chance at the deepest tournament run in Ole Miss history.

The 2012-13 season will forever be remembered as one that validated the careers of Holloway, Buckner and Henderson, reinvigorated the program and energized a fan base. The last three weeks will be chronicled as perhaps the most amazing run in Ole Miss history.

The NCAA tournament monkey is finally off Kennedy's back. He's proven he can win and win big at Ole Miss. Now he will look to build on that success, and there's no reason to believe he can't.


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