April 13, 2009

Ole Miss hoops basking in rankings

The Southeastern Conference baseball race hit the mid-point Sunday afternoon and Grove Bowl week begins today.

The Rebels, at 9-6 on the diamond in league play, are very much in the championship hunt, and the hype surrounding this football team is off the charts right now, at least by Ole Miss' standards.

Those two developments have kept Ole Miss basketball under the radar, so to speak, but there's plenty going on in and around Andy Kennedy's program.

First, there are rumors swirling about guard David Huertas and whether or not he'll return to Ole Miss for his senior season. Kennedy said Monday that Huertas is still enrolled in school and has indicated that he plans to finish his spring semester coursework. Huertas was on campus Thursday, but he's still wearing a protective boot (he injured his foot late in the season and limped to the proverbial finish line in the last couple of weeks of the season) and has yet to work out with his teammates.

Huertas, a Puerto Rico native, was back home over the weekend, prompting rumors that he signed a professional contract and begin his pro career. Sources close to the Ole Miss program said Monday that they don't believe those rumors are true. Those same sources, however, won't be surprised if that is exactly what happens eventually.

Huertas is under pressure from some family members to cash in now and draw a professional basketball check, likely in Puerto Rico. However, he will likely be in Oxford until May, and he and the Ole Miss coaching staff will likely have several discussions between now and then.

Assuming he passes his coursework this semester, Huertas will be just 12 hours short of a degree. If he returns to Ole Miss, however, he'll have to fight for playing time in the backcourt, where the Rebels should be seriously strong. Huertas' strength is the open perimeter jumper, and with Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice returning from injuries to create open shots off their dribble drives, Huertas could be set for a huge senior season -- if he returns.

On Monday, that sounded questionable at best. Ole Miss has already lost forward Malcolm White, who announced his intentions to transfer to another school last month. Expect the Rebels' coaching staff to sign an interior player, likely a junior college transfer, before the spring signing period ends.

There are also rumors that SEC Freshman of the Year Terrico White has filed paperwork with the National Basketball Association to make himself eligible for this summer's draft. Those rumors are false.

White has requested that the newly-formed NBA Advisory Committee evaluate where he would be drafted if he did leave school. College players can filed with the advisory committee every year, as it has no effect on their eligibility. A college player can only file for inclusion in the draft once and return to school.

Sources close to the Ole Miss program fully expect White, who filled in for Warren at point guard and led the Rebels to seven SEC wins last season, to return for his sophomore season.

In the final minutes of Ole Miss' regular-season finale against Mississippi State, I told a colleague that we might be getting a sneak peek at the SEC West race next season. The Bulldogs, who went on to win the SEC tournament in Tampa before falling to Washington in the first round of the NCAA tournament, lose no one from last season's team and Ole Miss gets three injured backcourt stars back.

It's good to know there are some national experts who agree with my assessment. ESPN's Andy Katz recently put out a preseason ranking that pegs Mississippi State at No. 21 and Ole Miss at No. 22. ESPN's hoops guru said Kennedy "did a phenomenal job with the Rebels despite season-ending injuries to Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice. In Warren's absence, freshman Terrico White shined by averaging 13.7 points a game. Warren, White and David Huertas give the Rebels the best backcourt in the SEC West. The Rebels simply need to ensure they can board. If they can rebound, they will be one of the surprise teams in the country."

Katz isn't alone. CBS' Gary Parrish ranks Ole Miss No. 26, noting that "Every relevant player should return (except Malcolm White, who is transferring) from a team that was lucky to win seven SEC games considering three of the Rebels' top four guards suffered season-ending knee injuries. By next season, everybody should be healthy, including Chris Warren. He was averaging 19.6 points per game until he tore his ACL on Dec. 18 against Louisville."

FOX Sports' Jeff Goodman agrees with Parrish, ranking the Rebels at No. 26, just outside his self-admitted "ridiculously early" preseason top 25.

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