From The Pressbox

March 11, 2003

By Lamar Chance
Associate Athletics Media Relations Director

OK, Ole Miss basketball fans, you're disappointed in the 2002-03 season. Go ahead and admit it (or you may have already on your favorite Internet message board).

In these times of instant gratification and the "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" attitude, the 2002-03 Ole Miss Rebel basketball season can be seen as a disappointing one. Well, I'll tell everyone that no one is more disappointed than the Ole Miss players and coaches. They had high expectations - even higher than those of the fans - and for one reason or another, they did not reach them.

But, I ask the Rebel Nation this: Would you rather have a basketball program that has consistently been one of the SEC's winningest - including the 2002-03 season - the last seven years and having it built the right way? Or do you want the quick fix where instant success may come at a huge price immediately or eventually down the road?

Basketball fans across the country have seen what can happen when the latter is chosen. Most fans that will read this undoubtedly will know the problems going on in the Southeastern Conference at this time, and there's no need to rehash that. But, it's not only in the SEC, but across the nation.

Even before the 2002-03 season started, Michigan declared itself ineligible for 2003 postseason play and took the 1992 and 1993 NCAA Final Four banners down from the rafters of its basketball arena for violations that occurred during the time of the "Fab 5." The school vacated its position in 1992 and 1993 as the national runner-up. So, as an alum of 1993 champion North Carolina, it has somewhat tarnished that title (at least for me). In other words, the game will go down in the NCAA record books as never being played, and thus, Chris Webber never called that timeout. By the way, this year's Wolverine squad is 17-12 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten and had a good chance at earning a bid to the "Big Dance."

Then, as soon as March Madness 2003 began, it got even more maddening with problems at schools like St. Bonaventure, Fresno State and Villanova. The Bonnies - which took Kentucky to two overtimes in the first round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament - were forced to forfeit a few games this year because they played with an ineligible player. The rest of the team then walked out on the remainder of the season, prompting the school to make administration changes and also scramble to gain support from other league schools not to get booted out of the conference.

Then, at Fresno State, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) banned the Bulldogs from the conference tournament this year for academic fraud that occurred in previous seasons. The school also decided not to be eligible for postseason (NCAA or NIT) play this season. All this for a team that went 20-8 overall and 13-5 in the league and had its head coach receive WAC Coach of the Year honors and three players earn All-WAC accolades.

Finally (but surely not the last incident we'll hear), Villanova had to suspend 12 players for use of university phone codes to make unauthorized calls. The penalties for the players range from 3-8 games, and the university is staggering the suspensions so the Wildcats can field a team. Villanova is 15-14 and is likely in the NIT. But, without these suspensions, the squad could have made a run in the BIG EAST Tournament and quite possibly earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

So, there you have it. Five teams - including Georgia - that were or are in turmoil this year. Four of the teams - Michigan, Georgia, Villanova and Fresno State - would be legitimately vying for spots in the NCAA Tournament this weekend, but because of current or past transgressions or quick fixes, they won't be able to feel the excitement of the NCAAs first-hand.

The Rebels head into this weekend at the SEC Tournament with an opportunity to reach the postseason. The NCAA Tournament? It's a stretch to win four games in four days, but it has been done before (see Arkansas in 2000) and the Rebels can run the table. The NIT? With two or three victories in New Orleans, that's a great possibility.

But, the bottom line - no matter what the outcome this weekend - is the Ole Miss Rebels have a chance and it's in their hands. The NCAA, conference office or university administration is not taking this opportunity away.

Since Rod Barnes was hired as head coach in April of 1998, the quick fix has never a part of his vocabulary. Does Barnes want to win? Man, don't even ask that. But, does Barnes want to build a program the right way? More than winning itself.

Barnes' two main goals for Rebel basketball have always been to, first, build a solid program at Ole Miss, and second, take youngsters into his program and help them mature into men that can be productive in the world after graduation.

Yes, former head coach Rob Evans laid the foundation, but Barnes has built on that quite nicely with four-straight postseason appearances from 1999-2002, including an NCAA Tournament "Sweet 16" run in 2001. The 2003 Rebel edition may or may not make it to the postseason, but you can bet it will still be used to build the program Barnes has envisioned. Just because the Rebels have had a subpar year, don't think that the building has crumbled. Other great programs have had their pains as well.

Ask John Wooden about his tenure at UCLA and he'll tell you it takes time. He took over the Bruin program in 1948 and made the NCAA Tournament field only two times in his first eight seasons. Both of those appearances were one-and-done. Wooden's Bruins made a fourth NCAA Tournament in 1962 - yes, 14 years after he got the job - and finally won a game. Two years later, Wooden led the Bruins to their first NCAA title. That title would begin a run of 10 NCAA championships in 12 seasons.

That was a long time ago, you say. OK, let's move forward a few years and look at Dean Smith's program at North Carolina. He followed Frank McGuire, who had led the Tar Heels to the NCAA title in 1957. Smith took over in 1961-62, and in his third season in 1963-64, he was hung in effigy by some unhappy fans during that 12-12 campaign. Smith and his program survived that, and in his sixth year (1966-67), he took North Carolina to its first NCAA Tournament since it won the title in 1957. Needless to say, college basketball's all-time winningest coach and the Tar Heel program have done fine since.

So, that's not modern enough for you current hoops fans. Let's take a look at Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke basketball program. A short history lesson will tell you that Duke was a major hoops power in the early-to-mid 1960s with five NCAA Tournament appearances, and the program even advanced to the NCAA title contest in 1978. Three years later, Coach K took over and posted a winning record his first season in 1980-81. But, the next two years (1981-82, 1982-83), Coach K's teams went a combined 21-38 while Duke's two biggest rivals were hanging national championships banners with North Carolina in 1982 and N.C. State in 1983. Pressure to let Coach K go was intense from the fans, but the university and athletics department administration stood behind not only the coach, but also the way he was putting the program together. Twenty years later, I believe that Coach K's program is quite solid.

There are other current top programs, like the ones at Kansas and Connecticut to name a couple, that have built themselves into national powers.

Can Ole Miss be a national power like these? Absolutely and time can only tell. The reoccurring theme here is that these basketball powers had to start building somewhere, and they did so over time. They didn't take the short cuts or look for the quick fixes. They did it by taking the proverbial road less traveled in college athletics. Sure, there are going to be hiccups on and off the court, but the overall plan is to do it the right way.

Barnes wants his program to be built in much the same mold. To show you where Barnes' focus is, take a look at what he said during a press conference during the team's recent losing streak:

"I'm not looking at the recent tough times in the terms of just one season, but as an entire program. We're going through some tough times, but the most important thing is the program. We don't want to lose kids academically trying to only win basketball games. Playing four of five games on the road at this time of the year usually doesn't happen, but it has and we've got to make sure we have things in order from a program standpoint."

Yes, you read that correctly: Barnes' program is not going to lose kids academically to only win games. Barnes wants to win, and build a winning program. But, he wants to do it the right way.

So, while many Ole Miss fans are down about this season and the team's record, the Rebel Nation should be proud that it has a coach that is and will continue to put the integrity of the university, athletics department and basketball team along with the welfare of his players ahead of a "win-at-all-costs" mentality.

Thanks Coach Barnes, and keep on building.

 

 

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