Ole Miss cramming for test vs. UT men
By: By CHRIS TALBOTT, Associated Press Writer
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — It’s time to get to know Mississippi’s Chris Warren.
O.J. Mayo, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley seem to get all the air time in this year’s remarkable college basketball freshman class.
But Rebels coach Andy Kennedy believes Warren, the slender slasher who has led Ole Miss to a record start, has done more for his team than any high-profile first-year player.
“Chris for our team may have had as big an impact on our program as any freshman in the country,” Kennedy said. “We are sitting here at (16th) in the country and we certainly would not be anywhere close to that if Chris Warren hadn’t had the start that he has.”
As the Rebels open the Southeastern Conference season with a daunting challenge at No. 8 Tennessee tonight, Warren is second in the league and 34th in the nation with 5.7 assists per game.
His 15.2 points per game are 12th in the SEC and he has pushed Ole Miss (13-0) to its best start and 86.2 points per game, eighth in the nation.
Ask the Orlando, Fla., native about his success so far, and he’s as likely to pass the credit to a teammate as he is to find him open under the basket.
“I’m happy,” Warren said. “I’ve worked hard. Hard work pays off. But it’s a team thing.”
And the team has flourished with the 5-foot-10 point guard leading the way.
The Rebels were picked to finish last in the SEC West, but are one of just six unbeaten teams remaining in the nation after breaking the school record for consecutive wins in a season earlier during the present campaign.
Kennedy and Warren’s teammates have been impressed with his speed, ballhandling skills and understanding of Ole Miss’ pressure game.
But they say his unflappable approach has led to his success so far.
Dwayne Curtis, the senior center who’s been a recipient of several Warren passes, is the freshman’s road roommate.
He rarely sees Warren smile, he said, and he rarely sees him frown.
“I can’t even explain it,” Curtis said. “He’s only got one expression. He doesn’t show much, you know what I mean?”
Kennedy said the best example of how Warren’s demeanor pays off in games came against Clemson last month.
Through the first 36 minutes, it was Warren’s worst game of the year.
He was 1-for-13 and then-No. 15 Clemson held a six-point lead during the final game of the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico.
Most freshman wouldn’t have had the nerve to fire off another shot, Kennedy said.
Warren never wavered, however.
He made his next four shots, scoring eight of Ole Miss’ last 10 points in an 85-82 upset victory.
“Not only did he have the nerve, but he had the resolve to get it done,” Kennedy said.
Warren will need both those qualities as the Rebels prepare for what appears to be a wide open SEC title chase.
Ole Miss, which still has doubters, will be tested immediately in Knoxville tonight against UT.
The Volunteers (12-1) are one of the few teams in the nation that score more than the Rebels with 87.4 ppg.
And they’ve been pressuring opponents into lethal mistakes by forcing 22.3 turnovers per game and averaging 12.2 steals per outing.
And the crowd in Knoxville will have roughly 12,000 more fans than Warren — or any of Ole Miss’ other 10 newcomers — has played in front of before in their college careers.
“I’m not really even worried about that,” Warren said. “I’m just coming out ready to play, focused, mentally ready, and whatever happens happens.”
Brian Smith, Warren’s backup and the son of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, believes Tennessee and the rest of the SEC are going to be surprised by Warren and his abilities.
He’s a very different player from Todd Abernethy, Warren’s musclebound predecessor who led the Rebels to a surprise division co-championship and 21 wins last season.
Warren fits Kennedy’s style of play, which uses speed and relentless pressure to force turnovers that can then be converted in transition.
“I think he’s the fastest player in the SEC, I mean by far,” Smith said. “I’m a senior now and I’ve yet to play against anybody faster than him.”
In fact, Smith said he hasn’t really found a weakness in Warren’s game.
Warren’s fast enough to break an opponent’s press, can drive the basket or shoot the 3-pointer — he’s third in the league in 3-pointers per game behind Vanderbilt’s Shan Foster and Tennessee’s Chris Lofton.
All of those things make Warren a threat, but in a rare unguarded moment he looks a little deeper for his best trait as a basketball player.
“I’d say winning,” Warren said. “As long as we get the win, it’s good.”