Rob Evans isn’t the kind of man to say, “I told you so.”
“When we were 0-5 in the SEC and 5-9 overall, we were pretty much given up for dead by everybody,” the fourth-year coach said with a slight smile. “We couldn’t find many people that still believed in us and what we were doing.
“But we believed in ourselves.”
Evans made two major changes on January 21 the day after losing to Florida in Tad Smith Coliseum. Evans and his coaching staff, Russ Pennell, Dan O’Dowd and Rod Barnes, decided to sink or swim with the freshman and sophomore classes.
The second change came when Evans called his team together and told them to forget everything that had happened. From that point, Evans initiated “the second season.”
And in the second season, Ole Miss has been, freshman Keith Carter says, “as good as anybody in this league with the exception of Kentucky.”
The Rebels have gone 7-4 in the second season, swept every remaining SEC opponent at home and, most importantly, have provided credibility to a program in desperate need of such.
“I think Ole Miss people are beginning to understand we’re closer to turning this program into something that’s going to be competitive for years,” Evans said. “We’re not there, but you can see it. We’re closer.”
Evans isn’t the only one preaching that evaluation. Around the SEC, opposing head coaches have been liberal in praise for the Rebels and the coaching staff.
“There was never any question about Ole Miss playing hard or playing smart,” said Alabama coach David Hobbs. “Rob’s teams have done that since he’s been there. The difference is the ability level. Their ability level is catching up with other levels.”
Auburn’s Cliff Ellis says “Ole Miss, next to Kentucky and Arkansas, has the best group of freshmen in the league. Once they became the key players, Ole Miss has gotten better.”
The “kiddie corps” trio of freshmen Keith Carter, Jason Smith and Michael White have developed into solid SEC-level starters. Two other freshmen, Jon Cantrell and walk-on Hunter Carpenter, have played well in roles.
The trio of sophomores Joezon Darby, Ansu Sesay and Anthony Boone is a productive recruiting class. Ready to come aboard next season as sophomores are transfers Chris Oney and Johnnie Rogers, who have been impressive in team scrimmages.
“We need one more good recruiting class,” said Evans, who admits the staff is heavily courting “big men” and hopes to sign two. “If we can add a couple of bangers inside, with Chris and Johnnie, we’ll be even more excited about the future of this program.”
The immediate future of the program is Alabama Saturday in Tuscaloosa and the SEC Tournament in New Orleans.
The Rebels are still seeking their first SEC road win since 1994 and Evans believes an SEC Tournament win would be a huge step in the maturing process for his freshman/sophomore club.
“We’ve still got goals to reach and things we want to accomplish now. Those opportunities are out there,” Evans said. “This team is still getting better and they’ve proven that the last 11 games.
“I said we wouldn’t finish last in the league and we haven’t. If the young players stay healthy and continue getting better, this program is really on the way. We’ve still got doubters, but we don’t have nearly as many as we did a month ago.”
Chris Burrows covers Ole Miss basketball for the Daily Journal.