By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
Last Saturday was a good time to be a Southeastern Conference basketball coach named Kennedy.
First, behind Elston Turner’s 40-point performance, Texas A&M handed Kentucky its first league loss at home in coach John Calipari’s four seasons. The win was a validation of second-year coach Billy Kennedy’s move to a faster-paced offense, installed after the Aggies moved from the Big 12.
Next, Ole Miss convincingly defeated the league’s other newcomer from the Big 12, then 10th-ranked Missouri. In fairness the Tigers were playing without injured leading scorer Laurence Bowers, but the win was a validation of the solid, and largely underrated job coach Andy Kennedy has turned in for seven seasons in Oxford.
Kennedy has won 20 games and led his team to the NIT in five of his first six seasons, and the one year he didn’t, the Rebels lost starting point guard Chris Warren for the season after he suffered a December knee injury. For that Kennedy has received a fair share of criticism, clearly from people who don’t understand how hard it is to win at Ole Miss. Granted, the Rebels’ non-conference schedules haven’t been too taxing—perhaps one reason they were overlooked this season before their SEC-opening win at Tennessee—but five postseason trips in six years is an accomplishment.
Still, Kennedy would probably trade them all for one spot in the NCAA tournament. This is the year he’s going to get his chance. But then, the Blue Ribbon Report is not surprised. Consider the final paragraph from Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook’s preview of the Rebels, written last summer:
“If the incoming backcourt players, notably Marshall Henderson, can provide some firepower and Reginald Buckner plays consistently up to his skill level, this will be the team that Kennedy finally leads to the NCAA tournament.”
So far, that prediction has held up. Henderson leads the SEC in scoring (18.6 ppg) and in 3-pointers per game (3.8) and is fifth in 3-point percentage (.361). Buckner, inconsistent offensively his first three seasons, is shooting .640 from the field while still delivering solid rebounding (7.8 rpg) and exceptional rim protection. He’s second in the league with his average of 2.8 blocked shots.
And then there’s double-double machine Murphy Holloway, the fifth-year senior, and a point guard, Jarvis Summers, with an off-the-charts assist-to-turnover ratio (4-1). Put it all together and Kennedy has an experienced, athletic lineup that, thanks to the perimeter shooting spark provided by Henderson, is improved over the team that reached the SEC tournament semifinals a year ago.
Billy Kennedy’s Texas A&M team suffered one of the most surprising defeats in the SEC this season, losing at home to Southern just before Christmas, but has won four straight since, including a thorough beating of Arkansas and that improbable win at Kentucky. The 2-0 start in league play has given the Aggies ample reason to feel good about themselves.
"That's the biggest thing I am looking forward to, from the program's standpoint,” Kennedy said. “If we compete hard defensively and we play together, we can do special things. You can only do that from success. Players have to win. Players have to feel success to buy in.
“We will continue to use that as motivation in practice and continue to go hard and get them to a point where they don't think they are tired every day. Hopefully, they will gain some confidence from this."
More fast starts: After a 6-7 record in non-conference games, Auburn has responded with two straight SEC wins (LSU, at South Carolina), no small accomplishment on the Plains. The last time the Tigers started 2-0 in the league, 10 years ago, Cliff Ellis was coaching them (2002-03).
There’s no great secret to Auburn’s success so far. Shooting cures a lot of ills, and the Tigers shot .516 from the field and .389 from 3 in their two wins.
More improbable/impressive has been Mississippi State’s 2-0 start under first-year coach Rick Ray. Defections, dismissals and injuries have gutted a perennial postseason tournament program, but somehow Ray, with just seven scholarship players, has held the Bulldogs together, leading them to a two-point win over South Carolina and a convincing road win at Georgia.
The return of shooter deluxe Jalen Steele from an early-season injury has been helpful; he’s shooting .429 from 3. Freshmen Craig Sword and Gavin Ware have made considerable contributions. Ray has even gotten help (22.6 mpg) from a walk-on, Tyson Cunningham, who clearly can’t be left alone from 3 (7 of 16, .438).
Nerlens the magician on D: Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel isn’t Anthony Davis, but then, he never said he wanted to be. Davis was a once-in-a-decade player, but Noel has skills, too, enough that he’s being considered, along with a handful of other players, as a future overall No. 1 NBA Draft pick.
Noel isn’t as advanced as Davis was offensively, but defensively, he’s been exceptional. He’s the only player in the country to be ranked among the top 30 in blocked shots (fourth, 3.73 bpg) and steals (12th, 2.67 spg), and he’s the only player taller than 6-5 among the top 30 steals leaders.
For that reason alone, Noel will be a valued commodity at the next level. But he’s more advanced offensively than he may have been billed. Just asked Texas A&M senior forward Jarod Jahns.
"He's a monster,” Jahns said. “He's 18 or 19 years-old and I did the very best I possibly could. I tried not to let him catch the ball. He's just really good and a very big guy. I've never played against a guy who is a true 6-11 and plays as big as he is. You prepare. You watch film. You know how good he is and what his tendencies are. You just force him off the block.”
Vols’ McRae becoming consistent: One of the few bright sports in Tennessee’s three-game losing streak that includes an 0-2 start in the SEC has been the play of guard Jordan McRae, who has scored 26 (Memphis), 26 (Ole Miss) and 21 (Alabama) points.
McRae is second in SEC scoring in league games only (23.5 ppg) while shooting 57 percent from the field.
McRae has always been an explosive scorer—he annually dominates a Knoxville summer league and last June notched a 64-point game en route to averaging 45.7 points—but defensive shortcomings have limited his playing time in college games. Ironically, by focusing on defense, he’s scoring more.
“Really, what I’m trying to do is be more consistent,” McRae said. “Last year, if my offensive game wasn’t working, I’d let it affect my defense. This year, whether the shots or falling or not, defense is going to be my identity.”
The shots are falling because McRae has begun using his natural gifts. At 6-5 he’s got the size to post up smaller guards, but he can also get to the rim with a good first step and leaping ability that has earned him a couple of spots on ESPN’s Top Plays the last two seasons. As he’s grown in coach Cuonzo Martin’s system McRae has learned not to be overly reliant on his jump shot.