Ole Miss measures progress vs. Tigers
By Scott Cacciola
December 9, 2006
OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy wore a uniform, not a suit, the first time he matched up against the University of Memphis. It turned out to be the last game of his college career. He scored nine points and grabbed three rebounds for UAB, which fell to Memphis, 82-76, in the first round of the 1991 NIT.
His familiarity with the Tigers has only grown over the years. As an assistant coach at UAB, he went 5-5 against the UofM. As an assistant at Cincinnati, he went 3-1. He lost his only meeting with the Tigers, 91-81, as Cincinnati's interim head coach last season.
So when Ole Miss (7-1) plays No. 16 Memphis (6-2) at FedExForum today, Kennedy expects the game to be a benchmark for his young program. He knows about the Tigers' tradition. He understands the visibility the program has gained under coach John Calipari. He realizes what this afternoon could mean for the rest of the Rebels' season.
"I think it gives us a taste about what the months of January and February are going to be like when night in and night out in the SEC you're playing quality opponents," Kennedy said. "We're looking forward to the challenge."
The Rebels visited St. Jude Children's Research Hospital on Friday afternoon to meet with young patients, sign autographs and pose for pictures. Kennedy has stressed the value of public service with his players. In its press release, the school emphasized that "at least one patient has expressed to being a longtime, loyal Ole Miss basketball fan."
That, at least, is a start. Kennedy would like to generate even more interest in the Memphis community. First and foremost, he wants to mine Shelby County for recruits. For that reason and others, he said, he thinks playing the Tigers is good for his program.
"We've got a huge Ole Miss contingent in Memphis, we're going to recruit the area, it makes a lot of sense for us," he said before praising Calipari. "I think it's a national program that Cal has at a very high level, so I think it's good for us as a gauge for where we are and where we aspire to be."
Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone said only one game remains in the contract between the two schools, a meeting in Oxford next season, though Boone said he planned to speak with Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson about renewing the series. Ole Miss and Memphis have a separate contract for football, Boone said.
Several Ole Miss players said they get more excited about Memphis than their other non-conference opponents, and they said they would like the series to continue. Only two players on the roster, senior guards Todd Abernethy and Bam Boyne, remain from the Rebels' surprising 65-53 victory over Memphis at FedExForum two years ago.
"I remember the feeling," Abernethy said. "I remember how much fun it was."
For most coaches who favor an up-tempo style, a game against Memphis might produce some angst-filled deliberation: To run, or not to run? Kennedy made clear this week that he wants his players to do what they do best, regardless of the opponent. And for the Rebels, that means trying to take advantage of fast-break opportunities, even against Memphis, whose speed has long been one of the program's hallmarks.
Asked if he was concerned about getting involved in a fast-paced matchup with the Tigers, Kennedy said: "Oh, that's what we want. We're going to go out and play our game."
Kennedy said he would make adjustments based on personnel and "what seems to be working," but in a larger sense -- and this has been true of Kennedy throughout the early portion of the season -- he wants to focus more on the development of his young team than analyze his opponents' strengths. His players seem to appreciate that.
"Hey, get the subs ready," Abernethy said, "because we're going to need everybody."
In a development:
Kennedy announced Friday that Justin Cerasoli is no longer a member of the Rebel basketball team.
"Justin has left the team for personal reasons," Kennedy said in a statement.
A sophomore guard, Cerasoli saw action in seven games for the Rebels this season. The Chicago native averaged 3.4 points and 1.1 rebounds in 13.1 minutes per game. Cerasoli signed with Ole Miss in July 2005 and sat out last year after transferring from Seton Hall.
-- Scott Cacciola: 529-2773