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Mississippi, paced by unheralded freshman point guard Chris Warren, is off to its best start in 82 years

IT'S HARDLY news that freshmen are the big story once again in college basketball, whether they're players who have been media fixtures for years (USC's O.J. Mayo), likely No. 1 NBA draft picks (Kansas State's Michael Beasley) or candidates to lead their teams to national titles (UCLA's Kevin Love and Memphis's Derrick Rose). With all those rookie stars around, it's refreshing to discover an old-fashioned freshman like Ole Miss point guard Chris Warren, who nearly slipped through the recruiting cracks but has made an indelible mark in the SEC. "There are so many good freshmen," says Andy Kennedy, the coach of the 17th-ranked Rebels, "but if you estimate value to a team, I'm not sure any of them are more valuable than Chris has been to us."

Ole Miss (15--2 through Sunday) is off to its best start since 1925--26, thanks largely to Warren, a 5'11", 152-pound floor general who makes up for his slight stature with his explosiveness (15.9 points per game) and poise (he has nearly twice as many assists as turnovers). Warren was ticketed for a mid-major (VCU, Old Dominion or Central Florida) until Ole Miss spotted him in a game going against another player the Rebels were recruiting.

Even though Warren played at Orlando's Dr. Phillips High, the Class 6A state runner-up last year, his AAU team wasn't a fixture at the elite summer tournaments attended by college coaches, so interest in him lagged. But with experienced players at every other position, Kennedy took a chance at point guard.

He certainly wasn't getting a vocal leader. Warren is almost preternaturally quiet, but he has earned the respect of teammates with sound decision-making and a silent confidence. "Everyone's older than me, so I have to listen to what they say," Warren says. "They've been here, and they know what's going on."

Only nine teams in the country turn the ball over less frequently than the Rebels, and Warren is the main reason for the lack of Miss-cues. He almost never picks up his dribble until he knows exactly what he's going to do with the ball. "He's unflappable," says Kennedy. "I'm an emotional coach, and I try to get after my guys and see what makes them tick. I can never get him to change his expression. You wouldn't know if we're up 20 or down 20. You wonder if he's getting everything you tell him because he doesn't give you a lot of response, but then he does what you ask and you know he's listening."

Granted, the Rebels have some shortcomings to address. While they don't commit many turnovers, they don't force many either (they're 191st in the nation in that category). Sure enough, Ole Miss followed a big home win against Florida on Jan. 16 by losing 80--77 at Auburn last Saturday. Yet it's worth noting that Warren has been tough even in the Rebels' two defeats, scoring 25 against Auburn and 24 in an 85--83 loss at Tennessee on Jan. 9. In what should be a wide-open SEC race, Ole Miss might be the biggest surprise, not least because it has the most surprising impact freshman.

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PHOTOBRENNAN LINSLEY/APSURE-HANDED The diminutive Warren is a man of few words and even fewer turnovers.