COLUMN: Marching On

It’s hard to find a more outwardly energetic coach these days than Matt Insell. Tonight, double that energy as son Matt meets father Rick Insell when Ole Miss faces Middle Tennessee State, coached by his father, in Murfreesboro in the NIT.

Matt comes from a basketball background since birth, growing up in a household where the game was as important as almost anything else. Family is important to the Insells. So are their friends. Basketball is the bond, or at least as much of one as anything else.

Matt inherited a tradition-rich Ole Miss program that had in its past done everything except advance to the Final Four and win a national championship. There had been multiple Sweet Sixteens and Elite Eights. A Southeastern Conference championship perfect season of 11-0 in 1992.

And know this, the NCAA only took over control of the women’s game in 1982. Ole Miss made the NCAA tourney field that year and has so many times since then.

But Matt took over Ole Miss at its lowest point ever. Losing. Coaching instability like never before. A fired coach. Another fired coach. An interim coach. Then Matt.

All in a matter of not much more than one calendar year.

Matt Insell inherited a nightmare with a smile on his face, basketball in his heart, and energy to lift a proud program from the depths of utter despair.

Matt told all those who would listen when he got the job and before that first season began in November, 2013, that he was going to make Ole Miss a winner again. I believed that.

He told us he thought Ole Miss had a chance to make the postseason in year one. I had a hard time believing that. Ultimately they didn’t. But Matt never wavered in his quest to turn this thing back around.

He often mentioned Van Chancellor and the program he led for 19 seasons, the success the Hall of Fame Rebel coach had, and the passion with which he wanted to return Ole Miss to those days and beyond.

So after recruiting more quality players to Ole Miss, Matt and company got ready for year two. He said, again, he would be disappointed if his team didn’t make the postseason. He meant it, just like he did in year one.

I had a hard time believing again. Nobody was laughing at those kind of bold statements. It’s just that we all had been around here and had seen the program gutted and knew the tremendous challenge of competing again in the Southeastern Conference, much less talking postseason, whether it was NIT or NCAA.

Year two? Postseason? Give it some time, Matt, I thought. Your energy and enthusiasm are off the charts. But you might say things you would regret, this early in a program down in the basement and just looking for the stairs to start the climb up. And that you might wish you could take back, given the pressure you are putting on yourself out there in the public.

But that's not Matt. His confidence overflows. He's prepared all his young life for these things. So we listened and reported.

And we saw some movement when his team started 4-1 in Southeastern Conference play, beat Florida on the road and a ranked Georgia team at home during that stretch. Maybe Matt was onto something here about this year’s team, his second in Oxford.

Then we all looked at the schedule and thought, this is about to get even tougher. And it did. Seven straight losses at one point in SEC play. But they didn’t flinch or doubt. And Matt didn’t waver.

He’d actually talk through those press conferences about winning national championships for Ole Miss women’s basketball.

He kept on preaching, and his players continued to believe. We can tell that when they play, when they talk to us in the postgames, and in the interaction among players and coaches.

Last season they won 12. If they win tonight, it is win No. 20 this season. It’s been since 2006-07, when a talented Ole Miss women’s basketball team made the Elite Eight, that anything resembling this team has been on the court.

Back in late November, Matt’s team hosted his dad’s team in Oxford. The Blue Raiders won 71-65. Who would have known then that a rematch would come – in the postseason?

No, it isn’t the NCAA Tournament. Although Matt is impatient and wants to be in that Big Dance, this year the NIT has had to do. And he is proud they are in it. Valuable practice and experience time for his young players, and a chance for his older players to go out on a positive note. And most of all to win a title.

And this for a team picked dead last by everyone who voted in the preseason balloting in the SEC last fall.

But they made a giant step and tied for 7th in the 14-team league this season. Now they’ve defeated Tennessee-Martin and Georgia Tech at home in the NIT.

Tonight at MTSU, the Insell family and all their friends will be there or at least paying attention from wherever they are.

No matter the outcome, Ole Miss women’s basketball has a future nobody could have envisioned two years ago when it was down.

Except Matt Insell, who has been preaching positive and winning and national championships ever since he arrived in Oxford.

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