2003-04 Ole Miss Basketball Summer Preview
July 24, 2003
As the final seconds ticked off the 2002-03 Rebel basketball season in the Louisiana Superdome last March, the skeptics could be seen smiling a little and saying, "I told you so."
Since Ole Miss hoops rose from the cellar in 1996-97, the program has been one of the Southeastern Conference's most consistent - not to mention one of the league's winningest. So when Ole Miss finished 2002-03 with a 14-15 overall mark that ended the Rebels' run of six straight winning seasons and six consecutive postseason berths, those doubters were making plans to celebrate.
But, before the plans go too far, the skeptics should take a look back a couple of years when they were ready to do the same. It was 1999-2000, and although the Rebels finished 19-14 (5-11 in league play) and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals, there were many that were writing off Ole Miss and ushering the program back down to the bottom of the SEC.
That was evident when the media voted the Rebels to finish sixth in the SEC Western Division the following year in 2000-01. Having only two returning starters from the season before and several talented newcomers making their initial plunge into Division I basketball, there were a lot of unknowns, so the hoops experts naturally had low expectations for Ole Miss.
Boy, were they wrong. The 2000-01 squad surprised all with a 27-8 record, the SEC Western Division title (11-5 conference mark), an SEC Tournament championship game appearance, an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen trip and a No. 9 national ranking in the final coaches poll - the highest in the program's history.
Whether or not history repeats itself is up to debate. It may not even happen again for the Rebels this season. But, just like a couple of years ago, Ole Miss head coach Rod Barnes and his squad are not concerned with history or having it repeat. They are focused on using lessons learned from last season and applying them to this year's team.
"For the coaches and players, we learned that we can't take anything for granted," said Barnes, who is in his sixth season in 2003-04. "We also learned that the little things matter.
"Last year's team was one that was in a lot of games down the stretch, but didn't do those little things necessary to pull out the wins. Sometimes it was a three-pointer or a dunk, and other times it was a missed box-out in the first half. When those little things continue to grow, teams can lose confidence and that's what happened to us last year.
"But what we went through last year has brought the returning players closer together. They are working hard and working together and are excited about the upcoming season. They are not just excited about playing, but they want to play the game and play together and that makes it fun."
Indeed, the Rebels had a lot of close calls in 2002-03. Of the 15 setbacks, 11 were by single digits. Even during the 10-game losing streak, Ole Miss dropped the decisions by only 10.4 points per contest.
Like that 2000-01 team that returned two key starters (Rahim Lockhart and Jason Flanigan), the 2003-04 squad does also in seniors Aaron Harper and Justin Reed, both of Jackson, Miss. Barnes admits that Harper and Reed will be the leaders of the 2003-04 Rebels.
"As expected, we'll turn to Justin Reed and Aaron Harper to lead us this season," said Barnes, who will carry a 100-61 record into 2003-04. "They have been through the wars with us the last three years. They are looking forward to having outstanding senior years, and I believe they will be excellent leaders in helping guide this program back to the postseason. It's not going to be a big secret this year that we are going to try to put the ball in the hands of Justin and Aaron.
"We're going to run motion on the offensive end, but we're also going to get Justin and Aaron the ball more. We haven't been that type of team - where certain players are the focus of the offense - since Rahim Lockhart's senior year (2000-01)."
While Harper and Reed will carry most of the load, they will need help. That help will come from seven newcomers.
"We have several new kids that we signed for this year," Barnes said. "We signed four junior college players that are experienced and talented. The two high school players we signed are solid performers that came out of great programs. We feel the combination of veterans along with the junior college and high school players we signed will be a good fit."
For the second straight year, the Rebels enter the season without a returnee at the point. While Barnes has some concerns, he feels more comfortable with the options at point guard entering the season, beginning with junior college transfer Ed Glass (St. Louis, Mo.) and freshman Todd Abernethy (Carmel, Ind.).
"Todd has played the point guard position all his life. He's always handled the ball and has grown up around basketball. Last year, we were trying to convert Trey from a shooting guard to the point. With Ed and Todd, we feel confident about the point guard position."
Another option at the point may be Harper, who has spent all of his career at the either the off-guard or small forward spot.
"In our spring individual workouts, we played Aaron at the point at times to give us a bigger target on the perimeter, especially when we are facing zone defenses," Barnes said. "We feel good about the mixture of guys we have at the point."
Harper could also see time at the off-guard, along with junior Justin Johnson (Fayetteville, N.C.) and freshman Bam Doyne (Little Rock, Ark.).
"At the off-guard, we first start with Justin Johnson," said Barnes. "He is a player that has been in our program for a couple of years and understands our system better. We also can play Aaron at the off-guard so that he can play more on the perimeter.
"Bam Doyne has a chance to be a really good player for us on the perimeter. He's a player that really likes to defend, and that's what our program is based on - defense."
If Barnes is comfortable about his backcourt, he has to be ecstatic about what he has up front, especially in terms of depth and versatility. And one big reason Barnes is happy about the frontline is the return of Reed, a two-time Wooden Award candidate. The 6-foot-8 forward mulled over entering this year's NBA Draft, but decided to come back for his final year.
"Although it took him some time, Justin began to take over in the last four or five games of last year," Barnes said. "He turned into our 'go-to' guy, and he has experience playing that role. He now can take on that role night-in and night-out.
Reed, though, may see a change in his game in 2003-04. In his first three years, Reed played at power forward and, at times, was even moved to the post. This year will find Reed at small forward to take advantage of his perimeter skills.
"We also will look to move Justin to the small forward spot," said Barnes. "If we can, that will make us that much stronger because Justin would be one of the strongest small forwards in the league. At the end of last season, Justin proved he had good perimeter skills to play at small forward."
Other candidates at small forward are the versatile Harper and junior Kendrick Fox (Oxford, Miss.).
"We can also play Aaron up front, where he played all of the last two seasons and it's his natural position," said Barnes. "Kendrick Fox will see time at the small forward spot. He has been with us for two years and knows what we are trying to accomplish."
With the plan to move Reed to the small forward, Barnes will have to fill a void at power forward. The Rebels' mentor will look to redshirt sophomore Lonnie Jackson (Montgomery, Ala.), redshirt senior Richard Kirklin (Pine Bluff, Ark.), junior Marvin Moore (Birmingham, Ala.) and junior Chris Rhodes (Houston, Texas).
"At the power forward, we have Richard Kirklin, Chris Rhodes and Lonnie Jackson, all of whom have been in our program and will add depth and experience. Marvin Moore is an inside-outside guy that we can play at either forward spot, but if we play him and Justin together, Marvin would be our power forward and Justin our small forward.
"We are probably deeper at the four spot than we've been in the past."
In the post, Barnes will turn exclusively to newcomers Byron Burnett (Anniston, Ala.) and Tommie Eddie (Brooklyn, N.Y.), both junior college transfers. Both players have size and will give the Rebels a presence in the lane.
"In the post, we have two newcomers in Byron Burnett and Tommie Eddie," said Barnes. "Byron will give us good size on the block at 6-9 and 250 pounds.
"Tommie may be the more heralded of the two. He is a 6-7, 260-pound wide body. Tommie has great post moves and understands the post position. Both Tommie and Byron are not freshman, as they have played college basketball so they bring some experience to the squad.
"We can back them up with Chris, who has seen some time there. We've also worked Lonnie there some. We'll just see who works best from a chemistry standpoint, and we feel that we have a number of options with which to work."
"I see this team coming together," Barnes said. "I see them putting extra time in on the court and spending time together off the court. I see that camaraderie building and that's fun. Without a doubt, I see that these players are there for each other.
"We have some good leadership, and we also have those players that are eager to be here and eager to learn. This season began when we started individual workouts this past spring, and I see us getting better and better."
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