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January 13, 2014

O'Bryant: 'It was really a toss-up'

OXFORD, Miss. -- For more than two years, Ole Miss recruited Johnny O'Bryant diligently.

Andy Kennedy loved the 6-foot-9, 256-pound power forward so much that he scouted him in his hometown of Cleveland, Miss., all over the AAU circuit and even at a USA U-17 basketball event in Germany.

O'Bryant loved Kennedy, too, and for the longest time, it looked like the two would end up together. Instead, O'Bryant signed with LSU, a miss Kennedy called "very painful" on Monday, two days before Ole Miss (10-5 overall, 1-1 in the Southeastern Conference) and LSU (10-4, 1-1) square off Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Tad Smith Coliseum.

"We spent a lot of time and energy recruiting Johnny," Kennedy said. "He's from just up the road from us and we knew he was going to be a tremendous talent. Nothing he has done at LSU has been surprising to me. I felt like he was a guy that was coming to come in and make an immediate impact, which he did as a freshman. As he evolved into his sophomore season, he was an all-league-caliber player as we anticipated and now he's one of the top frontcourt players in all of college basketball. I'm proud to see him develop. He's a good kid from a good family. I certainly wish he was wearing the red, white and blue on Wednesday."

O'Bryant averaged 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game as a freshman, a year Kennedy had envisioned him joining then-juniors Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner on Ole Miss' frontcourt. A year later, O'Bryant scored 13.6 points and hauled in 8.7 rebounds per game for LSU but could only watch as Ole Miss won the SEC tournament title and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament.

"I'm here now," O'Bryant said. "I'm a Tiger. That's what I focus on, but I was rooting for them. Ole Miss is definitely the home-state team and I wished them much success in the tournament."

O'Bryant may not spend much time pondering what-if scenarios, but he readily admits now that he very nearly matriculated to Oxford instead of Baton Rouge.

"It was really a toss-up between Ole Miss and LSU," O'Bryant said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. "That's what it came down to actually - Ole Miss and LSU. Oxford is a great place. I went down there to visit. The coaches there did a great job of hosting me and showing me a lot of love in the recruiting process.

"It was really hard. I had a good relationship with Coach Kennedy from Ole Miss throughout the recruiting process. You build relationships like that and you make a phone call telling them you're going in a different direction, it's really tough. At the end of the day, that's how the recruiting process works."

On Wednesday, Kennedy will likely have a gameplan that centers on stopping O'Bryant. O'Bryant is averging 14.2 points and 7.4 rebounds so far this season, numbers that have been earned amidst a myriad of double- and triple-teams. Opponents are keying on O'Bryant, and the junior is having to adjust.

"It's been a big adjustment for me, just having to deal with guys game-planning to stop you and not letting you score and not letting you get a rebound," O'Bryant said. "I'm still adjusting to it. Once I get used to it, I can get rolling and this team and can be a much better team."

"We think Johnny's made some real positive strides for us," LSU coach Johnny Jones said. "He finished the year strong last year for us, had a tremendous summer. Johnny's a part of everyone's scouting report now, and a lot of times, teams we're playing, their defense is designed to try to take Johnny away from us. When that's happened, he's made the right decision and made the extra pass. When he's had the ability to be in some one-on-one positions in the post, he's played well and shot a high percentage for us. It's just a matter of getting that balance for him, but he's been terrific for us."

O'Bryant is trying to take LSU where Ole Miss went a year ago - into March Madness with a chance to advance. To do it, the Tigers have to start winning consistently. A road win over Kennedy, Marshall Henderson and the Rebels would be a major step in that direction. That's what will be on O'Bryant's mind Wednesday, not thoughts about what could have been had he made a different final choice.

"I know some people are probably bitter about the decision, but I have a lot of good friends that go to Ole Miss and a lot of family that lives close to the area, so it's always good to come home and play in front of them and hopefully get a win in front of them," O'Bryant said. "It will definitely be a good experience."


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