Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy talks about the Rebels' depth and the challenges of the new SEC schedule.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Andy Kennedy welcomed his largest recruiting class to Ole Miss this summer.
Many believe the six-member class is also Kennedy's best, possibly the one that will end the Rebels' decade-long NCAA tournament drought in March.
Kennedy isn't ready to put that type of pressure on the class, but he had high praise for each of them after watching them work out this summer.
Ole Miss was 20-14 a year ago, likely a win or two from the NCAA tournament. Six of the top seven players from that team return, including a trio of seniors - forwards Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner and guard Nick Williams.
"We challenge every group, but I've really challenged this group," Kennedy said. "It helps that when the guys that you want to lead are naturally vocal. We fought it with (former Ole Miss guard) Chris Warren. As great as Chris was, he was not comfortable in a vocal role. I think different strokes for different folks, but it's always helpful when you're asking for leadership that you're asking it from guys who have been there, done that and are focal points for your team."
Junior Demarco Cox is down to 266 pounds and appears poised to play an even larger role this season. Sophomores Aaron Jones and LaDarius White both finished last season strong and have benefited greatly from a year in a collegiate offseason training program.
Jones, Kennedy said, has made a "huge jump in the way he carries himself and the way his body's matured. He's grown an inch. A.J. has always been a hard worker. He's got a motor that runs. You never have to worry about his competitive spirit, and he's getting more comfortable in understanding the thing he needs to do to be successful."
White, meanwhile, is now 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds. He has, Kennedy said, "the ability to score. His versatility is his calling card. He has the potential to fill a void at that wing spot (left by the departure of Terrance Henry)."
The buzz around the program, however, is being generated by the newcomers, a group that includes national junior college player of the year Marshall Henderson. The 6-2 guard "has been tremendous," Kennedy said. "He's worked hard. He's brought a maturity that you would have hoped. He's been through this before."
Henderson, who averaged 13.6 points per game as a true freshman at Utah, "brings us something we sorely lacked last year, and that's the ability to be consistent from the perimeter. Even when he's not making shots, the fact that you have to guard him is going to create spacing issues for our opponent, which hopefully we can take advantage of."
"He's a guy who has the mentality of a gunslinger, and that's what you need, really. He's a guy who's really going to give you an outside scoring threat. It's almost like being a cornerback in football. You can't be afraid to make the big play, and if you get burned a couple of times, i.e., miss a few shots, you've got to go out there and shoot the next one with confidence that it's going to go in. There's no question he can do that."
Henderson and Williams figure to be the starters on the wings, joining a backcourt that will include sophomore Jarvis Summers and freshman Derrick Millinghaus at the point. Summers averaged 10.4 points per game as a freshman, and the 5-10 Millinghaus has drawn comparisons to two of Kennedy's all-time favorite floor generals - Warren and former Cincinnati and South Carolina guard Devan Downey.
"From a build standpoint, I would say he's closer to Devan Downey than he is to Chris Warren, but he's kind of a combination of the two and I hope he can be half as productive as those two were," Kennedy said. "He's fast in the open floor. He's a good perimeter shooter. He's compact. He's strong. He's got an explosiveness to himself off the dribble."
The Rebels also added immediate impact up front when former Alabama forward Jason Carter transferred to Ole Miss after a year at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College. The 6-8, 225-pound Carter is a stretch-4, a commodity Kennedy hasn't had at his disposal in recent seasons.
"He's a legit threat all the way out to the 3-point line," Kennedy said. "He can really shoot the ball. He's highly skilled. He's got the skill level of a small forward more than that of a power forward, which gives us something up front that we haven't had, maybe in the time that I've been here."
Forward Terry Brutus, Kennedy said, is a bit of Holloway clone physically.
"For him, it's just about learning the consistency with which you have to play to be successful at this level."
Forward Anthony Perez-Cortesia, who didn't arrive in Oxford until earlier this month due to his obligations to the Venezuelan national team, gives the Rebels a "pure shooter," Kennedy said. "He's an athletic kid. He's very fast in the open floor and his skill set is what's going to give him a chance because he brings something to us that we don't currently have."
Guard Martavious Newby, a 6-3 Memphis product, should give Ole Miss a "lock-down defender," Kennedy said. "He's incredibly competitive. He's a guy who can play a lot of different spots."
Kennedy said he's concerned about the Rebels' lack of veteran guards, knowing that deficiency can be the difference between the NCAA tournament bubble and a No. 4 seed. However, the seventh-year Ole Miss coach clearly likes this team for its depth and versatility.
"There are no two players you would say are alike," Kennedy said. "Everybody has a different set of skills. They're all completely different, so it gives you a lot of pieces."
Ole Miss opens the season on Nov. 9 at home against Mississippi Valley. The Rebels open Southeastern Conference play on Jan. 9 at Tennessee.