1998-99 Men's Basketball Season Outlook
Aug. 20, 1998
When a new season approaches, there are always at least a few questions as to how the team will perform. For the Ole Miss Rebel basketball team, the 1998-99 season holds many questions.
How will the Rebels perform under first-year head coach Rod Barnes? How will Ole Miss replace the all-around game of All-America Ansu Sesay? Who takes the place of Anthony Boone, the "heart and soul" of the program the past four years? Who becomes the Rebels' new sixth man in place of Joezon Darby?
How will the Rebels win a third straight Southeastern Conference Western Division championship? Can Ole Miss win a third division title and earn a third consecutive NCAA Tournament?
First, the answers that are known.
Yes, Rob Evans has moved on to the head coaching position at Arizona State, and the 32-year-old Barnes enters his first season at the helm of the Rebel basketball program as one of the youngest head coaches in the country.
Yes, Sesay, the 1998 SEC Player of the Year and consensus All-America, has moved on to the professional ranks, taking his nearly 20 points and eight boards per contest with him. And, yes, Darby has also gone on to the professional ranks, as he takes his 11 point-per-game average and three-point shooting prowess overseas. And, yes, Boone is gone as well, leaving the legacy of his tough, hard-nosed play hanging in the Tad Smith Coliseum rafters with his retired jersey.
While Barnes and his staff have to face the aforementioned questions, the one thought on their minds is team chemistry and how to achieve the right mix for another successful season in 1998-99. "Team chemistry will be the most crucial element to our success for this season," says Barnes. "With all the players we had returning from the 1996-97 season, we already had great team chemistry last year because those players had been with each other the previous two years. That chemistry made us a great team.
"Team chemistry is what we will try to build by the start of the season. We got to work on building a great basketball team." Barnes has a lot of experience and talent with which to work to build the 1998-99 Ole Miss Rebels into a great team. The Rebels have nine returnees, including three starters, who have been through the league wars en route to back-to-back SEC Western Division titles the past two years.
Leading the returnees are the three senior starters in Keith Carter (Perryville, Ark.), Jason Smith (Wheatley, Ark.) and Michael White (Tempe, Ariz.). All three players have been instrumental in the rise of the Ole Miss basketball program and will be counted on to lead the team in Barnes' first season at the helm. Joining the trio of starters are six other returnees who played valuable minutes for Rebels the last two seasons.
Adding to the experience is a group of six very talented newcomers, and Barnes and his staff have what they need to build a solid team for the upcoming season.
The basketball experts always say that an experienced backcourt is crucial to a team's success, especially in the postseason, and if that is true, then Ole Miss should have another solid season in 1998-99.
The Rebel backcourt tandem of Carter and White have started together since they were freshmen, and will give Ole Miss one of the top backcourts in the conference.
With the loss of Sesay, the spotlight now falls on Carter, who was an Associated Press All-SEC second team pick in 1998. Last season, Carter was the squad's second-leading scorer behind Sesay with a 14.8 average and was also the squad's third-leading rebounder at 6.2 boards per game.
While Sesay was the focus of most opponents' defenses last season, Carter, an All-America candidate for the 1998-99 campaign, proved he had the "go-to guy" mentality as well. Just ask Temple, South Carolina and Kentucky. All three saw Carter explode on the offensive end, burying several three-pointers and hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. Now, Carter has the spotlight to himself, and Barnes thinks the 6-foot-4 guard can handle it.
"Keith will handle the new role well because he is a very intelligent player," Barnes says. "He understands the game, and he knows that the opposition will come after him and put pressure on him this year. "Keith is playing against some of the best players in the nation this summer at the Goodwill Games trials and training camp, and I believe that will prepare for what he will face this season. He has been waiting his turn to step up and lead this team. I feel Keith is ready for this role mentally and physically, and he is ready to be the leader of the team."
Helping Carter to lead the 1998-99 Rebels will be White, who has been the "quarterback" of the team the past three seasons. In his first two years at the point guard spot, White did a solid job of getting the ball to scorers, but last season, the "best shooter on the team" gained more confidence in his shot and made the opponents pay when they backed off him. The 1997-98 campaign proved to be White's year to shine offensively. He averaged 5.4 points per game and shot nearly 50 percent from the three-point line, and his offensive performances in victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky - in which he netted a career-best 16 points in each contest - earned him SEC Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career.
However, running the floor game is what White does best, and it is also what the Rebels will need from the 6-foot-1 guard this season. For the third straight season, White led the squad in assists (87 in 1997-98) and directed the Ole Miss offense and defense.
"Michael has been a very solid player for us the past three years," says Barnes. "He is our floor leader, and we expect him to have an outstanding season for us. He has continued to work hard and has improved every phase of his game."
Sharing time at the point will be sophomore Jason Flanigan (Little Rock, Ark.). Flanigan saw action in all 29 games as a freshman a year ago and averaged 4.1 and 1.6 rebounds. Flanigan was fourth on the team with 51 assists, and as the season progressed, he became more confident from beyond the three-point arc. In the last 12 games, he hit nine of his 10 treys and shot 45 percent from the three-point line in those 12 contests. "Jason had a great freshman season, and he has improved his shot and ball handling," says Barnes. "Jason is getting more comfortable playing the point. He played off-guard in high school, but he made the adjustment to the point last season. We expect Jason to continue to improve."
At the off-guard spot behind Carter, the Rebels have senior Hunter Carpenter (Little Rock, Ark.), junior Lataryl Williams (Oxford, Miss.) and freshmen Matt Pruitt (Jonesboro, Ark.) and Syniker Taylor (Gulfport, Miss.). Carpenter is the lone returnee among the backups at the off-guard position. The 6-foot guard provides the Rebels with another solid three-point shooter and another player who has a lot of experience. Williams, Pruitt and Taylor will also vie for playing time at the off-guard spot. Williams, a 6-foot-6 junior college transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, will give the Rebels good size in the backcourt. Williams, who averaged 10.5 points last year at Northwest, can shoot the ball and defend on the perimeter well. The freshmen duo of Pruitt and Taylor will add scoring punch to the backcourt, as both players averaged 20 or more points during their high school senior campaigns. Pruitt was a McDonald's All-America honorable mention pick, while Taylor was named to the Mississippi All-State first team. Both players have the ability to play either guard position and will likely see action this season.
"Matt and Syniker are all combo-guards who can play at either backcourt position," Barnes says. "Both are good shooters and can score."
The Rebel frontcourt has one question entering the 1998-99 season who will fill the post? That will have to be answered in the preseason practices in October, but Ole Miss has no shortage of talent or experience up front.
Smith will be the most-experienced returnee on the Rebel frontline, and Barnes is expecting even more from him in 1998-99. "Jason is a tremendous athlete," Barnes says. "He is a solid rebounder and defender. I feel that Jason is a major key to our success this season.
He has been a consistent performer for us the past two years, and he is working hard to get stronger this season. Jason is also working on his jump shot, and once he becomes more consistent with that, he will be very hard to defend."
Indeed, a consistent jumper would make Smith almost unstoppable. Smith has tremendous athletic ability and has shown that he can take over on the offensive end for the Rebels. Last year, he netted a season-high 20 points in outstanding performances versus Florida and South Carolina. Smith averaged just under 10 points per game (9.8 ppg), but he will need to score more to make up for the loss of Sesay especially early in the season until the newcomers get comfortable with their roles.
Defensively, Smith has been one of the best at filling the passing lanes. He led Ole Miss in steals the last three years, including 48 swipes a year ago. The 6-foot-6 forward also became more aggressive on the boards, averaging 6.5 rebounds. Smith will have to continue his solid play in both areas for the Rebels to have another successful campaign. Barnes and his staff are also expecting a lot from the other returning frontline players seniors Jon Cantrell (Germantown, Tenn.) and Johnnie Rogers (Jackson, Miss.) and sophomore Rahim Lockhart (Mendenhall, Miss.). All three players received a lot of minutes last year, and that should prove beneficial for the Rebels in 1998-99.
Cantrell gives Ole Miss another three-point threat, and with his size at 6-foot-8, also gives the Rebels a player who can play and defend in the post.
"Jon is undoubtedly the best perimeter shooter at his size in the conference," Barnes says. "Jon is the lone fifth-year senior and understands what we need to do to be successful. He is working hard this summer to get stronger so that we can play him some in the post." During the last three seasons, Cantrell has played on the perimeter, and has been a three-point weapon for the Rebels. In 1997-98, Cantrell shot 42 percent from the arc and always seemed to hit a key three-pointer for the Rebels.
While Cantrell is a key on the perimeter, Rogers will have to continue to give the team what he has done the last two years blocking shots. Rogers will have to score and rebound more for the Rebels in 1998-99, but with Ole Miss lacking size in the post, he will have to be a presence with his shot-blocking ability.
"Johnnie is our most-experienced post player," says Barnes. "Johnnie is a solid rebounder and great shot blocker, and he will need to give us valuable minutes this season."
Last year, Rogers averaged 3.2 points and 2.8 rebounds, while blocking a team-best 48 shots. He finished the season ranked among the top 10 in the SEC in blocked shots.
Lockhart is another returnee who will be expected to fill the Rebels' void in the post. A 6-foot-8 forward, Lockhart possesses a wide body to give Ole Miss a presence in the lane, but he also has a solid offensive game in the post. As a freshman, Lockhart averaged 3.5 points and 3.1 boards.
"Rahim had a good freshman year, but we are looking for him to improve," Barnes says. "Rahim has matured as a player, and we expect him to carry a lot of the load down low. He is our best offensive player in the post."
After those four returnees, Barnes and his staff will turn to a very talented group of newcomers who could see a lot of action early in the season. Redshirt freshman John Engstrom (Paragould, Ark.), a 7-footer, will add size in the post, while junior Marcus Hicks (Jackson, Tenn.) and freshman Darrian Brown (West Memphis, Ark.) will make the Rebels an even more athletic team than a year ago.
There were a lot of expectations for Engstrom a year ago, as he was to be Ole Miss' first true post player in some time. However, a preseason anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury forced Engstrom to sidelines for the 1997-98 campaign. This season, the expectations are there again for Engstrom.
"John is coming off knee surgery, but he has made a lot of progress," Barnes says. "Although he was injured, he was with us throughout last year and knows what we are trying to do. He adds size to our team, and we are looking for good things from him."
Hicks and Brown, both 6-foot-6 swingmen, should help make up for the scoring void created by the loss of Sesay. Both players bring outstanding credentials to Ole Miss. Hicks was a junior college All-America and averaged just under 20 points, while Brown was one of the top players in the state of Arkansas.
"Darrian has the potential to be one of the best players on the team," Barnes says. "He hates to lose and will challenge the opposition every time he steps on the court.
"Marcus can play either forward spot. He is an outstanding athlete, and I look for him to replace some of Ansu's scoring."
There are many questions for the Rebels entering the 1998-99 campaign. However, Ole Miss has the experience and the talent to do well. If the Rebel coaching staff can solve the question of team chemistry, then Rebel fans can celebrate another SEC Western Division championship in late February, and beyond that, who knows.
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