BY PARRISH ALFORD
OXFORD – It wasn't long ago that men's basketball was the head of the totem pole for Ole Miss athletics.
The Rebels made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2001 and won Southeastern Conference Western Division titles three times in five years.
They were a force to face at Tad Smith Coliseum, hustling players with in-your-face energy surrounded by an active fan base that provided a truly intimidating environment in the SEC's smallest arena.
Building which began under Rob Evans and continued under head coach Rod Barnes helped a program with a rather bleak postseason history become a player on the March Madness scene, making the big tournament five times in six years.
Those were the best of times. Barnes – 113-76 in six seasons – was the national coach of the year in 2001. He was 33-31 in SEC games over his first four seasons, but the Rebels are 9-23 in the league over the last two. The questions now for frustrated supporters are: where did those good times go, and how did they vanish so quickly?
“We've really struggled the last two years,” athletics director Pete Boone said. “Expectations were not close to being met, and we have a lot of work to do.”
The answer from Barnes, who did not pursue job opportunities during the good days, choosing instead to try and build on success at Ole Miss, is two-fold.
Part One has to do with an unforgiving conference in which no team stays on top for long.
Part Two is procurement of talent.
“When you look at our league, what you see is that it's an ever-evolving league,” Barnes said. “I remember when Auburn was the best team in our league with Chris Porter and those guys, when LSU was big with Stromile Swift, and when Arkansas was good not only in our league but in the nation.
“Alabama has been successful, and Mark (Gottfried) has had his struggling, too. Rick (Stansbury, Mississippi State coach) got off to a tough start.
“I'm not saying that just to get the thing off me, that's our league. When you're at this level, there are lots of things that factor into being good or great.”
Boone doesn't fully embrace the evolving league theory.
“He could be right, but I'm not sure that we really qualify for that,” he said. “You have to reload with talent every year; that's the main thing. At any point you could have a point guard or a significant player get hurt. Then maybe that year isn't very good, but you still have talent.”
Boone continued: “Most everyone will agree that while we may have some talent, it's not at the level that it was two or three years ago. It's just as important to understand why you're having the down time as opposed to just accepting that everybody runs through a cycle.”
Talent appears to be the biggest missing ingredient as the fall approaches. Players embrace the 2004-05 season. Some supporters just brace for it.
The Rebels struggled the last two seasons even with All-SEC caliber players like Justin Reed and Aaron Harper. Reed led the league in scoring with 18.5 points a game, and Harper averaged 16.5.
Justin Johnson, Kendrick Fox, Tommie Eddie and other returning players have hit some big shots and turned in important minutes but have yet to nightly shoulder a significant scoring load.
Barnes, who has two years remaining on his contract, with his total package valued at $750,000, believes he has a talented freshmen class with Arkansas natives Jeremy Parnell (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) and Brandon Patterson, even though Bobby Clark, a two-time all-state player from Jackson, failed to qualify.
The Rebels also picked up a transfer in Auburn big man Dewayne Curtis in May, but he won't be eligible until next season.
Johnson, now a senior, takes offense at the lack of talent talk and predicts remarkable improvement for the coming season.
“Personally, I think it will be a 360 (degree turnaround),” he said. “I feel we will be a totally different team, and I'm excited about it.”
Johnson attributes his own enthusiasm to growing pains already experienced by a number of the returning players.
Boone finds enthusiasm in recent adjustments to the coaching staff made by Barnes.
Key additions to staff
Two new hires – former Auburn assistant coach Tracy Dildy and former Ole Miss player and Jacksonville State assistant Michael White – have earned reputations as sucessful recruiters.
A key indicator of Barnes' success in rebuilding the program may be not where the Rebels stand next March, necessarily, but where they stand in November after the early signing period.
“Sometimes a head coach is not as objective about assistants as he needs to be,” Boone said. “If certain things aren't getting done, whether it's recruiting or point guard play or whatever, those issues need to be addressed every year. We may have been a year late in addressing some of those issues, but he did address them.”
Barnes believed he needed to bring in proven recruiters. He said addressing the needs was difficult, yet rewarding.
“It was very tough for me in releasing coach (Wayne) Brent,” he said. “But then to do a nation-wide search was the best thing for me. In the past I'd moved up guys or knew guys that I was going to hire. To go out and talk to guys who had coached at Florida State, Oklahoma, places like that … it opened my eyes to a whole new realm of things.”
In and out of state
Barnes hopes Dildy and White will help shore up the Rebels' out-of-state recruiting as well as their Mississippi efforts.
But too much emphasis is placed on Ole Miss losing out on the more well-known recruits in the state, he said.
“I don't think our downfall has been because of the success of Mississippi State recruiting in Mississippi, but that would be the perception.”
Then Barnes lists players who have been key in three straight NCAA tournament trips for his in-state rivals.
“Let's just go on and compare, because that's what I deal with, comparisons to Mississippi State. Let's talk about their players. Derrick Zimmerman, Louisiana … Branden Vincent, Louisiana … Winsome Frazier, Florida … Mario Austin, Alabama … Shane Power, Indiana, and then Lawrence Roberts from Texas, who bridged the gap for them. That's what we're trying to establish.
“We're going to recruit Mississippi, but we're determined to expand our recruiting.”
Barnes said having marquee players like Ansu Sesay, Rahim Lockhart and Justin Reed has occassionally worked against him in recruiting players of similar skill who seek the limelight in the offense.
So, too, has his unwavering stance to obey the rules.
“I'm not going to point the finger at anyone else, but the way we do recruiting, being legal …,” he said, his sentence left hanging.
While Eric Bozeman remains as his lead assistant, Barnes has an otherwise revamped staff and will lead them into a revamped offense this season.
The motion offense was a trademark of Ole Miss basketball during its most successful years. But the lack of a Reed-like go-to guy in the halfcourt setting has Barnes, a former Ole Miss point guard, tweaking his style.
A more up-tempo style will cater to the athleticism of players like forward Marvin Moore and guard Ed Glass. Both were junior college transfers who never excelled in the halfcourt game last year.
Barnes compared Moore and Glass to previous Ole Miss transfers, Lataryl Williams and others, who blossomed in their second seasons.
While the running game will be the offense of choice, Barnes said he can still utilize wide-bodied Tommie Eddie when it's necessary to play the halfcourt game.
“I think we'll be more of five guys in the range of 14 points to eight points a game instead of guys averaging 19, 14 and then four,” Barnes said.
“The new style will help Marvin more than anyone. For Marvin to average 10 points, he's got to get a couple of layups or stick-backs after quick shots. We have enough guys for us to make that happen.”
Barnes stopped short of predicting the magical transformation that Johnson did, but also doesn't believe the Rebels are on life support for the 2004-05 season.
Somewhere in the middle would be acceptable improvement for Boone.
“We have to put a competitive team out there where we have an opportunity to win,” Boone said. “The SEC games we lost last year, we lost by an average of 20 points. But I do know that some of Rod's best teams have been when he's had no-name players. He's been able to put some chemistry out on the court.”
Barnes will begin this season as he does every other one, with his sights set on postseason play.
“If you don't go into the season with those type expectations, you cut yourself short. I'm excited about next season and our possibilities,” he said.
“I consider us in a stage of transition. We're in a shift from being good to trying to be one of the best. That's the way I look at it, and I don't think I'm that far off.”