Winning Ways

Matt Insell came off the court following a tough workout with his team last week as they prepared for the first season of his tenure with the Rebels.

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"Today was not an easy day," said one of Division I's youngest head coaches. He'd just turned 31 a couple of weeks prior to that particular practice.

"We did a lot of defensive stuff. They're not used to having to do all that," he said.

And so he is teaching and encouraging and convincing, along with his staff, that this year's Ole Miss women's basketball team can accomplish some special things.

He knows the players want to be good, now and into the future. But they have to be complete players.

"Everyone of them says they want to be a pro," Insell said. "So I say to them you gotta play some defense."

The Shelbyville, Tenn., native and Middle Tennessee State graduate said he's loved his time at Ole Miss so far. Loved being here, loved working with the players and coaches, loved being a part of the renewal of a proud program.

"It's going real good. I'm very impressed with the progress we've made," he said. "But we're nowhere near where we need to be. I keep telling the players all the time, if we were where we needed to be, then it would be an issue because we'd be too far ahead at this point."

The Rebels are not too far ahead. They are still trying to play catch-up to the powerhouse programs of the Southeastern Conference. But Insell plans to get them there, and that means starting with this season.

"We've become a better basketball team over this last six months. We've really become a better basketball team (since Oct. 1). It's amazing the progress we made," Insell said, always keeping that positive frame of mind toward basketball and life.

"We're getting there offensively. We've got to get there defensively. The makeup of our team, the identity of our team, has got to be one of defensive pressure. That's where we're going to get a lot of points, going from defense to offense. That will initiate our fast break. We've got to get that mentality. We've got to get that demeanor when we walk on the court that it's going to be tough defensively to score on us. We want to be a real tough team to score on."

Insell said one of his early concerns was eliminated not long after he arrived.

"The biggest thing I was worried about when I took over this job was if they really wanted it, if the team I was inheriting really wanted to win," he said, arriving himself at Ole Miss after another Elite Eight run at Kentucky. "If they didn't have that and didn't want to put the effort in that it takes to win, then it was going to be a major, major issue trying to get them going. From the first day they've been a group that is determined to show that they can win."

Valencia McFarland
Bruce Newman

Insell continues to learn. He said he's learned from another Ole Miss coach on campus, just watching and listening and trying to implement some of the same aspects as the Rebels' head football coach.

"I've heard and read about Coach (Hugh) Freeze and his team last year, about how they overcame a lot of obstacles and the journey they took," Insell said. "To win with that group I'm sure meant a lot to him, when a lot of people didn't expect them to win. It's the same way with our team this year. They really want to do it. I've got to show them the guidance and the way to do it. I've got to get this team to believe, and they've been believing. That's the thing that I've been so excited about. If they continue to believe, then we've got a chance to win and surprise a lot of people."

Insell's first team begins with point guard Valencia McFarland. A potential All-SEC performer, the Mississippi native is now a senior and team leader. Insell is familiar with her, having known her since her youth in AAU basketball and also having coached against her the past few seasons.

"Valencia McFarland is playing at a level that I haven't seen her play in four years. I've played against her for three years, and I'm coaching her for this fourth year. Some kind of light has come on," he said. "She's playing at a level we haven't seen in the past three years, and at a consistent level."

Insell said McFarland has some others around her than can help make the offense go this season.

"We're pretty good offensively," he said. "We can shoot the basketball. We've added some girls that can really shoot it. Some of our returners can really shoot it. We've got to get better at just being consistent.

"We're playing hard consistently. But we've got to get consistent in our drill carryover, in terms of being up the line denial, in terms of running wide when you run the break in transition, in terms of being consistent from day to day in remembering where you're supposed to be in the offense. More reps will help. Consistency is the thing we have to improve on."

Insell believes in this school. He believes in this athletics department. He believes in this program. He believes in his first Ole Miss team.

"I don't know how good we'll be early, but when January comes around, we're going to be a tough team to play against," he said. "People in the SEC are going to know that when they play against us, it's going to be a tough game and a team that has a legitimate chance to beat them."

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