October 25, 2010 12:27:00 PM
David Miller -
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- All eyes are Chris Warren.
As the only returning starter for the Ole Miss Rebels, Warren carries the responsibility of leading a team with six new players without the likes of Terrico White, Murphy Holloway or Eniel Polynice to help share the load.
Without the supporting class Warren has had around him over the last two seasons, Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy thinks Warren could blossom beyond his 17.2 points and 3.2 3-point makes per game last season.
Last season''s guard combo of Warren and White, though productive at 32.3 points per game, created a quandary in who would be the unquestioned leader of the team.
Neither player was overly vocal, and as score-first guards there were often cases were either would defer to the other.
"There was a lot of talk going into last year; how would Chris and Terrico coexist?" Kennedy said Thursday at SEC Media Day. "Terrico was coming off being the freshman of the year from the point, and he never really played that position. Everybody knew Chris, because of his size, had to be a point. And I think both of them, at times, were looking at one another ''Are you gonna take the shot? Am I gonna take the shot? Who''s gonna take the reins of this team?''
"We don''t have that issue this year. I think it''s clear who our leader is."
Warren is closing in on 2,000 points and 400 assists for his career and could join Pete Maravich and Alan Houston as the only Southeastern Conference players to achieve those numbers.
Kennedy knows what he''s getting from Warren in terms of production, but he''s keen to see his point guard help the "eclectic" mix of returning players and first-year Rebels move the squad to a new level.
In each of the past three seasons, the Rebels have failed to make the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss played in the NIT in 2008 and ''10, reaching the semifinals in ''08.
The Rebels haven''t made the NCAA tournament since 2002.
"NIT just means that we were almost to the NCAA," Warren said. "A few games off here or there, a few turnovers here, (we) could have been in NCAA competing."
Warren said Kennedy''s message to him in the offseason was simple: Get the team to the NCAA tournament.
"Basically, it was ''I''ve got one more year and if we don''t make it to the NCAA tournament, what have I done?'' Warren said. "He said I''ve worked hard, but I haven''t worked hard enough."
Warren recalls making it to the NIT semis in ''08 -- his freshman season -- and thinking it was the first of many postseason experiences he''d have before finishing his career.
"Going to New York, we thought that was big," Warren said. "We thought ''This will be good for us in our first year and NCAA trips would come. Hopefully that starts this year."
Kennedy said he challenged Warren to take advantage of his final season in Oxford by being more of a vocal leader. He said he''s seen the sense of urgency in Warren he expects seniors to have, and he hopes his star player continues the trend.
"He has to be vocal because the players have to uphold the standard that is set -- what is going to be acceptable for our group -- and that comes within that locker room," Kennedy said. "It comes first and foremost with Chris.
"Obviously, he''s been through the wars and the rigors of this league before. He understands this is it for him."
Warren says he has plenty of leadership help from sophomore guard Nick Williams, who sat out last season after transferring from Indiana. Williams will essentially pick up where White left off last season, giving the Rebels one of the more versatile and potent backcourts in the league.
"Even though he sat out last year, when he''s playing this year he''s doing so as if he''s a veteran," Warren said. "He''s been through the motions already. He played at Indiana, so he''s ready to come in and play.
"He''s always vocal. He''s been vocal since he''s been here. We don''t have a lot of vocal guys, but he''s one of them."
Warren doesn''t feel any facets of his game must change to help the team, citing vocal leadership as the lone attribute needed to help the team make the NCAA tournament. But that doesn''t necessarily mean going above and beyond just to be a vocal presence, so long as he''s spreading the right message.
"With the new guys, it just comes down to teaching them plays and getting down to fundamentals," Warren said. "I just feel like what I do say has to be important. It has to get guys'' attention. I feel like when I do say something, guys do listen."