Two other veteran guards were leaving with him. And the only other point guard on the roster with experience, senior Brian Smith, had never been more than a backup in his career.
So when the Ole Miss coach was putting together his first full signing class, the importance of locking up a freshman capable of running his team was paramount. But even then, Kennedy knew that signing a point guard out of high school, throwing him on the court, and watching the first-year player learn the college game on the fly could produce rocky results.
“When we were recruiting we had to go out and sign somebody that could come in from day one and have an impact,” Kennedy said Monday. “How quickly they’re able to make that adjustment, as coaches, you never really know.”
The good news for Kennedy is that the freshman he signed — Chris Warren — has worked out well. Warren leads Ole Miss in scoring (16 points), assists (5.2) and starts (20). Even more important, the Orlando, Fla., native has shown little trouble shouldering the load at the game’s most important position.
Arkansas (16-5, 5-2 in Southeastern Conference) will get its first look at the freshman when the Rebels (16-4, 3-4) play the Razorbacks in Bud Walton Arena on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Warren isn’t a rarity in the college game, where programs tend to rely on younger players more and more each season. But handing the reins to a freshman point guard still can be considered a roller coaster ride for any coach.
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey referenced that after the Razorbacks’ 80-61 win against Florida. When asked about Gary Ervin, a senior, and Stefan Welsh, a sophomore, he said: “Consistent play at that spot on the floor sometimes is just critical. Spectacular play is good. Awful play is just disastrous.”
Kennedy, of course, knew that when rebuilding his roster.
The 5-foot-10 Warren didn’t garner big-time scholarship offers as a prep player at Dr. Phillips (Fla.) High. According to Rivals.com, Warren chose Ole Miss over programs like North Carolina State, James Madison, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth. But Kennedy believed he had potential.
One reason was because of his experience with another freshman point guard. Devan Downey, now a sophomore at South Carolina, started for Kennedy at Cincinnati in 2005-06.
The 5-foot-9 Downey was small, but proved he could run a team in guiding the Bearcats through a tumultuous season. And it eased Kennedy’s mind that Warren could do the same.
“If it wasn’t for Devan I never would’ve had Chris,” Kennedy said. “I always had a phobia a little bit about small guards because of that matchups. ... With what we went through with Devan and having an opportunity to put so much trust in him and his ability to get the job done, it took away a lot of the phobias I had about small guards. I really don’t have any concerns about Chris now. He’s an unflappable freshman.”
But the Rebels aren’t the only team in the SEC counting on similar results from freshmen point guards this season.
Arkansas saw another one last week, when Florida coach Billy Donovan’s youthful team was led by ball handlers Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas. Also, Alabama placed the onus on Rico Pickett after Ronald Steele was sidelined because of knee surgeries.
Calathes and Lucas, despite the 80-61 loss to Arkansas, have led the Gators to an 18-4 start and Donovan has commended their performances. Alabama coach Mark Gottfried has said the same about Pickett, even though he has come off the bench the past few games after being replaced by Brandon Hollinger.
“Everyone wants to come in and be the freshman phenom,” Gottfried told the Tuscaloosa News last week. “Sometimes it happens, but more often, it doesn’t.”
Warren, of course, is closer to the phenom description.
Kennedy said the point guard began showing signs that he was capable of handling the role last summer. He hasn’t been perfect by any means, but Warren said he’s not surprised by his performance.
“I didn’t think it was going to be tough,” Warren said. “If it was, I was going to go hard and give my all every game and every practice.”
But Donovan said another factor has helped: He believes Warren’s development is being aided by his teammates, too.
Ole Miss has a senior-laden frontcourt includes veterans Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams. It’s not a luxury Florida’s point guards have, but Donovan said it can make a world of difference when a freshman point guard is learning the ropes.
“Sometimes it’s a lot easier for a freshman point guard to make that adjustment into college if you’ve got guys in the frontcourt or at the wing spots who are really seasoned, veteran guys to help them along,” Donovan said. “Chris has got a terrific supporting cast around him which has allowed him to play as well as he has up to this point in time.”
Warren admits he still has plenty to learn. He said one thing he must improve is his leadership skills. Warren believes he needs to be more vocal in areas like getting Ole Miss in the correct play and making sure players are in the right positions.
Those skills take time, but Kennedy said he continues to learn and grow every day. Kennedy said it has helped him earn his teammates’ respect. Opponents have taken notice, too.
“He’s had a lot of pressure on his shoulders,” said Ervin, who benefited from playing behind senior Timmy Bowers as a freshman at Mississippi State in 2003-04. “You can tell what type of player he is because he’s controlling that well.”
There’s no doubt he’ll be important to the Rebels the rest of the way. Ole Miss opened the year with a school-record, 15-game win streak, but has dropped three of its past four.
It sounds easy to blame the drop-off on freshman burnout, but Kennedy said it’s hard to consider Warren a youngster because of the floor time he has accumulated.
And, ultimately, Pelphrey said age shouldn’t matter. Instead, he said a point guard should be measured in other ways.
“Can a guy do the job?” Pelphrey said. “Whether he’s a freshman or he’s a senior, you’re looking for results and obviously that young man has had tremendous results.”