Big Things Ahead
Oct. 14, 2005
Normally three straight losing seasons does not translate into optimism. But for Ole Miss basketball, excitement is in the air.
A rejuvenation of the program a year ago has the Rebels reloaded and eyeing a return to the postseason.
With his team struggling and talent low, head coach Rod Barnes set out following 2003-04 to return his club to the foundations that produced three division titles, six postseason berths and five NCAA bids over the last nine seasons -- all tops among SEC Western Division teams during that span.
Since taking over the Ole Miss reins, Barnes has reached accomplishments never before seen by a Rebel coach. He was the 2001 national and SEC coach of the year, when he guided Ole Miss to a 27-8 record, the SEC West crown, an NCAA Sweet 16 berth and a No. 9 final national ranking -- the highest in the program's history.
Barnes' 127 coaching victories in his first 220 games is the most of any Ole Miss coach over that span and is the second-most wins in school history. His .577 winning percentage is the highest of any Rebel coach of seven years or more. As a player, an assistant and a head coach, Barnes has spent 16 years with Ole Miss hoops, has guided it through its most prolific era and understands what it takes to return to prominence.
Last summer, Barnes upgraded his staff and addressed recruiting in excess, adding coaching veteran and celebrated requiter Tracy Dildy and former Rebel standout and Jacksonville State assistant Michael White.
The result was one of the nation's top incoming classes, ranked as high as No. 3 in college basketball by recruiting publications. Ole Miss strengthened its roster with talent and, rare for the Rebels, size.
Include Dwayne Curtis, who sat out last season after transferring from Auburn, and the Ole Miss roster will feature six post players, with a pair measuring 6-foot-9 in height.
"We are a bigger, stronger, faster and deeper team than we were last year," Barnes said. "We're lacking experience and that's only going to improve from us playing games and getting in the middle of some tough situations. But I think we come into this season with some of the key ingredients that we need to have a great year.
"We go in believing that we have what it takes to make the NCAA Tournament. It's going to take a lot of work. We're going to have some growing pains because we are young, but we feel like we have enough to get us there."
The Rebels lose nine of the 15 letterwinner's from last year's 14-17 squad that reached the second round of the SEC Tournament. Led by a hard-working, never-quit senior class, Ole Miss came oh so close on so many occasions.
Ten of the losses were by 11 points or less, including eight of the team's 12 SEC defeats. The Rebels either led or were within two possessions inside the final minute in seven SEC losses.
Unable to finish so many nail-bitting contests, the six returnees entered the offseason with an unresolved hunger and began their preparation for the upcoming season immediately following the SEC Tournament. With a relentless work ethic, that group has already begun to instill its desire for success on a talented corps of youngsters.
"I really think we've advanced in the process of building our program back to where it was," said Barnes. "The process began last year with the seniors we had. Starting in the spring, there was a newness, a fresh beginning and just something about this group of guys that they seemed to be hungry and determined to get back on top.
"Since the end of last season, the work that they've done, their attitude, their togetherness and their unity have all come together. I believe that we're probably ahead of schedule for what I anticipated, but I'm not surprised because of the leadership we have with Todd Abernethy, Dwayne Curtis and Londrick Nolen. A lot of good things have happened in the past six months, and we're expecting it to pay off for us in the season."
The trio of Abernethy, Curtis and Nolen are directing Ole Miss' return to prominence. A junior guard, Abernethy is the only Rebel to have played in every game the last two seasons and served as team captain as a sophomore. The 2005 SEC Sixth Man of the Year will return to the starting lineup this year.
Curtis has yet to play a game in the Red and Blue, but after practicing with the squad for a season, has already earned the respect of his coaches and teammates. The sophomore center saw action in 19 games as a true freshman at Auburn in 2003-04, starting five contests.
A senior from Memphis, Nolen is Ole Miss' only returning starter from a year ago, when he earned the nod in 26 of 31 games. Despite a late-season slump, Nolen, a 6-foot-6 swingman, finished the campaign second in scoring (9.8 ppg) and tied for the lead in rebounding (4.4 rpg).
Outside Abernethy and Nolen, guard Brandon Patterson is the only other Rebel to have averaged 15-plus minutes last season. He joins frontcourt force Jermey Parnell and guards Bam Doyne and Brian Smith among the returning lettermen, who each have some experience under their belt and a productive offseason on which to build. Mix in seven touted newcomers and Ole Miss has a ton of positives with only one missing ingredient.
"Maturity is something you can't teach. You just have to let the process happen, and that's what we're missing right now," Barnes said. "It's going to take time, simply from the lack of experience of these guys playing together. I think they've done a great job of really getting to know each other this spring and, more importantly, this summer as we've added some of the new guys. I guess the biggest thing is we're going to have to be prepared, as a staff, to be tested early. But we feel really good about this team."
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