By LARRY VAUGHT
Every season Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy seems to find himself amazed at what Kentucky coach John Calipari is able to do with so many new players.
“It’s amazing to me what Cal is able to do year-in and year-out of taking a bunch of new guys and defining them into a role of a team, and an outstanding team,” Kennedy said during a teleconference Tuesday. “He’s done that again this year.
“The thing that jumps off the page when you see Kentucky is their team speed. I’ve been here, this is my 11th year, so I’ve seen a lot of great Kentucky teams and a lot of great Kentucky players, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one as fast as this team.”
The veteran coach says freshman guard De’Aaron Fox is a “special talent” when he has the ball because of his speed.
“If you’re fast on tape that means you’re going to be doubly fast in person,” Kennedy said.
Freshman Malik Monk, who had 47 points against North Carolina, and center Bam Adebayo also earned praise from Kennedy as they have from most coaches this season.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons, so we’ve got to battle, we’ve got to do what we do, limit live-ball turnovers, try to battle on the glass and then when you’ve got an opportunity to make a play offensively we’re going to have to make it,” Kennedy said as his team prepares to host Kentucky Thursday.
Mississippi is 9-3 with losses to Creighton, Middle Tennessee and Virginia Tech. Kennedy admits he thought his team might come together quicker despite having so many new pieces.
“I was probably a little over optimistic thinking about blending the old with the new would come more easily,” Kennedy said. “Deandre Burnett and Cullen Neal are guys that are veteran players in my eyes having been around the college game for a number of years. However, they’re new to Ole Miss and they’re new to this set of circumstances, and with that is going to come a bit of a transition.”
Burnett is a transfer from Miami (Fla.) who averages 19.2 points per game and is shooting 38.7 percent from 3-point range. He scored 41 points in a win over Miami.
Neal transferred from New Mexico and is averaging 12.3 points and 3.7 assists per game.
Senior Sebastian Saiz, a 6-9 forward, contributes 15.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. He is part of the reason Ole Miss has a plus 6.6 mark in rebounding and is second in the SEC in blocked shots.
As a team, the Rebels lead the SEC in rebounding margin at plus-6.6 and rank second in blocked shots.
Kennedy says rebounding and his team making open shots will be keys for his team.
“When your opportunities come, they’re so athletic and they get to the ball so quickly that your windows are going to close rapidly. So, when we have windows to score we’re going to have to make open shots, more so than you would against an opponent who’s just not quite as potent offensively,” Kennedy said.
“I’ve said this many times, I think (Kentucky is) the program by which you judge all others. They’re the gold standard. It’s an exciting way to open (league play), but obviously very, very difficult because they’re so good, again.”