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Ole Miss basketball 2015-16: Undersized Rebs have to play fast and score big

A dearth of big men and the introduction of scoring-friendly rule changes means a whole new level of Andy Kennedy Ball. Will it translate into wins?

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

So I'm watching Ole Miss' exhibition hoops game last Friday, trying to discern the identity of a team that went through significant roster overhaul since we last saw them on the court in the NCAA Tourney, when I came across this tweet from @cjustinsanders:

This year's Andy Kennedy team looks extra Andy Kennedy-y.

In case you're not familiar with AK's general basketball style, it's a run 'n' gun funhouse that puts more emphasis on pace and athleticism than it does half-court sets or like, fundamental basketball. But it's a philosophy that's been relatively successful: Ole Miss has finished among the SEC's top four in scoring six of AK's nine seasons at the helm.

That style of play will be exaggerated even more this season. A dearth of reliable big men combined with a shorter shot clock and other scoring-friendly rules means the 2015-16 squad is going to play smaller and faster than any other we've seen in the Andy Kennedy era.

"We're gonna have to play fast," AK said during his media day press conference. "I do think think this team can play with pace. It's gonna have to."

Where have all the big men gone?

With M.J. Rhett, Dwight Coleby and Aaron Jones gone, the only players over 6'7 currently on the roster are Sebastian Saiz, Anthony Perez and Tomasz Gielo. Of that trio, Saiz is the only traditional, back-to-the-basket big man (the other two are stretch-fours; more on them in a minute).

The other forwards are Terry Brutus and Marcanvis Hymon. Brutus has some serious bulk at 235 pounds, but 1) he's just 6'6 and 2) he's injury-prone: he played in just two games last season and is already nursing an ankle issue this season. Hymon played a grand total of 51 minutes as a freshman, notching only seven points and seven rebounds.

"We're probably longer, more athletic than we've been in the front court, but we don't have a lot of girth," Kennedy said a couple of weeks ago. "We've got four guys in there right now, with [Saiz], Tomasz, [Perez] and Marcanvis Hymon ... Between those four, we're gonna have to man the 80 minutes that you get up front and I don't have any problem doing that with those guys."

Which means there's going to be a lot of pressure on the 6'9 Saiz to be the anchor down low on both sides of the floor. AK has challenged him to become a double-double guy (which would be a big jump from his 7.6 points/5.5 rebound line last season), which is what this team needs if it's going to consistently get production in the paint. Expect Saiz's minutes to take a significant step up from the 23.2 he averaged last season.

Stretch 'em out

AK is gonna try to make up for that lack of size down low with a pair of forwards that can run the floor, stretch the defense and open up space for his guards to penetrate. That will be the responsibility of junior Anthony Perez and newcomer Tomasz Gielo.

Standing 6'9 with big-time athleticism, solid handles and an outside shooting touch, Perez was supposed to be the next Terence Henry. Instead, he's averaged just 3.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game over three seasons and saw his minutes drop from 20.2 per game in 2013-14 down to 10.7 last season.

So AK went out this offseason and bagged himself some insurance in the form of Gielo, a graduate transfer from Liberty and a member of the Polish national team. This is a 6'9 forward who drilled 40 threes and shot 40 percent from behind the arc as a junior (an injury limited him to just seven games as a senior) and can run the floor. During last week's exhibition game, he went 3-of-5 from deep and threw down a pair of breakaway dunks.

Perez is going to play exclusively as a stretch-four, while the 230-pound Gielo is going to periodically spell Saiz at the five.

"They both can shoot the ball," Kennedy said in his media day presser. "There are times they'll play together, which will give us five positions that can stretch out, which gives us a lot of versatility offensively."

The new rule changes don't hurt

AK's reliance on pace and points plays right into several key rulebook tweaks the NCAA made over the offseason in the hopes of creating more offense in college basketball.

The first and most significant change is that the 35-second shot clock has been shortened to 30 seconds, the theory being that more possessions equals more points. While a Ken Pomeroy study of last season's NIT, CBI and CIT tournaments (all of which experimented with a 30-second clock) did find marginal increases in scoring (up 4.5 points vs. expected) and possessions (up two vs. expected), many coaches and media types believe the rule might actually benefit defenses, which will have to defend for a shorter period of time.

The impact of that change will skew towards the slower, more traditional offenses and away from teams like Ole Miss, which rarely get deep enough into a possession for it to matter. In other words, AK's team won't need to adjust; other teams in the league will.

"For the way our team is designed, it's beneficial," AK said. "We won't have to change any of the things we do offensively. We change defenses a good bit, which creates some confusion, which helps us with the shorter shot clock."

Other rules, including expanding the arc under the basket, are geared towards increasing, to borrow the hot word that's been commonly used, "freedom of movement."

"Freedom of movement allows people more lanes to the basket, and therefore scoring, with our group as well as across the country, they're hoping will be up," AK said when asked about the new rules. "For us, we need scoring to be up with our personnel."

More points, more pace, less size. That's the war cry from Oxford this year. Whether that will translate into winning basketball remains to be seen. If nothing else, it should be entertaining.