Preseason projections still have Mississippi State, Ole Miss fighting for SEC basketball respect
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Andy Kennedy knew it was coming. So Ole Miss’ basketball coach decided to have some fun with it.
“Top 10 in the country, that’s awesome,” Kennedy joked. “That’s a great selling point for us. I appreciate the hard work we’ve put in over the years finally getting acknowledged.”
Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon was more to the point.
Both of Mississippi’s Southeastern Conference teams were picked to finish near the bottom of the league standings in the media’s preseason league basketball poll released Wednesday as part of the SEC’s annual media day at the Omni Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. Ole Miss was picked to finish 10th while the Bulldogs were pegged to finish 12th in the 14-team league.
“Honestly I just felt disrespected,” said Weatherspoon, Mississippi State’s All-SEC guard.
Kennedy’s teams are used to being picked to finish in the bottom half of the league standings at this point — and exceeding those expectations. The Rebels have been picked to finish ninth each of the last two seasons and haven’t been pegged to finish higher than sixth since the conference did away with divisions before the 2011-12 season.
Ole Miss finished higher than their projection each of those seasons, including a tie for fifth last season. The Rebels have exceeded their preseason prediction in all but two of Kennedy’s 11 seasons at the helm.
The Rebels return six contributors along with their top two scorers from last season in Deandre Burnett and Terence Davis. Yet Ole Miss still finds itself fighting for respect in a league where everybody is chasing perennial power Kentucky.
“That’s what we wake up every day and fight for, respect,” Davis said. “They picked us to finish 10th. Every year, they’ve picked up to finish close to last and we’re always finishing sixth, seventh, tied for fifth last year. I know we’re fighting for respect. I think it’s just fuel to the fire.”
Burnett said Kennedy’s ability to adapt his system to his personnel over the years has been the primary reason Ole Miss is usually better than expected. Burnett, Davis and point guard Breein Tyree are part of what Kennedy called perhaps the deepest and most talented backcourt he’s had in Oxford with the additions of Memphis transfer Markel Crawford and freshmen Ilya Tyrtyshnik and Devontae Shuler, a four-star signee out of prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy.
Add 7-footer Dominik Olejniczak and stretch forward Bruce Stevens, a former junior college All-American, to the mix, and the Rebels believe they’ve got plenty of pieces to again blow up the projections and make a run at the NCAA Tournament after finishing last season in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals.
“Me and Terence laughed about it,” Burnett said. “Andy Kennedy always finishes higher than he’s projected. … He’s been doing a great job at it for, what, 12 years now? I don’t think it will change this year.”
The Bulldogs’ preseason prediction is on par with where they finished last season as Mississippi State went 6-12 in SEC play with a second-round exit in the league tournament. But the return of a healthy Weatherspoon, who averaged a team-high 16.5 points last season while playing with a sore wrist, and another crop of heralded recruits have the Bulldogs believing they can make a jump in a league that’s deeper with other teams also bringing in more top-line talent.
“(The preseason) doesn’t mean anything because it’s about where you finish,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “That’s what concerns us, but this is what you see right now. Our league is so tough and so good top to bottom. There’s not any easy opponent in the conference.”
Center Abdul Ado (6-foot-11, 250 pounds) is eligible after redshirting last season, adding to a frontcourt that already includes forward Aric Holman and center Schnider Herard, who combined for 13.5 points and 11 rebounds a game last season. Weatherspoon’s brother, five-star guard signee Nick Weatherspoon, should add another scoring threat on the perimeter.
“I think we’re going to have an amazing season and shock a lot of people this year,” Weatherspoon said.