n Senior guard finds
By Parrish Alford
ATLANTA - On the basketball court, Clarence Sanders thrives for the long shot.
A year ago, his entire senior season was a long shot.
"Everybody knew I was on the verge of leaving," he recalls.
The Ole Miss basketball season would be very different now had Sanders, a 6-foot-1 guard from Phenix City, Ala., followed that negative impulse.
The Rebels would have had to replace his 16.5 points a game. Those big late-game 3-point baskets against Alabama, LSU and Auburn, the steals and break-away baskets, the baseline drives É all those would have come from someone else or not at all.
Instead, Ole Miss is 19-11, 8-8, a co-champion in the SEC West and can take a major step toward an NCAA tournament berth by beating either Tennessee or LSU in the SEC tournament here Friday night.
"That last shot, that 3-pointer against Auburn, we wouldn't want anyone else taking that shot," said Todd Abernethy, an All-SEC guard like Sanders. "He's a big-time player, and he's not scared to take the big shots."
Sanders' close relationship with former coach Rod Barnes left him emotionally spent after Barnes was fired last March.
Prior to the hiring of new coach Andy Kennedy, a number of players openly talked of leaving the program. Sanders in fact did leave the team after Barnes was released. His absence from the last two games was explained as "personal reasons."
"Once coach Kennedy came in and we had that first team meeting, then he called me in his office and talked to me. I was like, man, I can benefit from him being my coach and just coming to practice working. He talked me into staying, and I'm glad I did," Sanders said.
Sanders has indeed thrived in a new style that plays faster on offense and frustrates opponents with traps on defense. He ranks second in the SEC in 3-point field goals per game (3.03) and seventh in percentage (38.1). That's almost 12 percentage points higher than last year's 3-point success rate of 26.7.
Kennedy, himself a great college shooter, frequently jokes about Sanders' form with the head tilted back and the leg kicking out. But instead of trying to change the form Kennedy has accepted the flaws and helped Sanders to boost his confidence.
"The thing we've worked on with him is shot selection, and I think that's better," Kennedy said. "At first we were trying to get him to understand good shot and bad shot. Then we said we know where he is most comfortable, let's try and put him in those spots."
Those spots are often the corners on either side of the floor.
There was some coaching involved too. Kennedy encouraged Sanders to keep his head still during the shot. If a shooter's head is wobbly, so is his target.
"He told me to quit leaning so much," Sanders said. "Then he said as long as I'm making shots to stay with my shot."
That was difficult advice to stand by when Sanders was 6-for-25 from the floor when the Rebels got no inside presence at Mississippi State. Kennedy encouraged Sanders to refocus, and lift off occurred shortly after as the schedule reached late January.
Sanders became and has remained the Rebels' No. 1 scoring option. They will need all they can get from him in the Georgia Dome as they try to play their way into the program's first NCAA bid since 2002.
With Ole Miss' RPI at 61, many consider that bid a long shot. But this season has taught Sanders that long shots can find the bottom of the net.
Did he ever think this type of season possible?
"I'm not going to sit here and say yeah, and I'm not going to sit here and say no," he said. "I knew once the team got good chemistry with the new coaches, and once the team got on one accord, anything was possible."