Matt Insell/USA Today Images

Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell believes the Rebels are not getting the preseason credit they deserve

The Ole Miss women’s basketball team was picked to finish last in the SEC by league media, but head coach Matt Insell isn’t buying it.

Insell has been on coaching staffs for three Elite Eight teams, and he said his current crop of Rebels “ranks up there” with those teams in terms of depth and talent. The Rebels return four starters from last season, when they finished 10-20 overall and 2-14 in the SEC.

However, the addition of five newcomers, led by former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Chrisahe Rowe, has Insell and Co. with high hopes.

“Our expectation is to be in the NCAA Tournament, and I don’t’ think that’s an unrealistic expectation for this team,” Insell said. “We feel like it won’t be a successful season if we aren’t there. That’s our mentality in our program, we talk about it and we’re not shying away from that. We feel like we have a team that can compete at the top of this league.”

"Our expectations are very high,” senior guard Erika Sisk, an Oxford, Miss., native, said. “In the summer, as a player and as a leader, we have been in the gym more than we have ever been. We have been working out a lot and we just have the want to get better mentality. 40-50,000 shots were taken over the summer and at one point we had 15,000. Our team this year has great size down on the block. Taylor Manuel, Kate Rodgers, Shelby Gibson, Bretta Hart and Shequila Joseph. Once the ball goes inside, I feel like 75 to 100 percent of the time something good is going to happen. The ball goes inside and then out, something good happens when we play inside.”  

Sisk, a two-year starter at guard, is 64 points away from 1,000 for her career. She’s but one of a handful of pieces Insell will call on to get Ole Miss back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. 

Erika Sisk/

Along with Sisk, Shandricka Sessom, Madinah Muhammad and Shequila Joseph are back for another season in the starting lineup. But it’s in Rowe, a 5-foot-10 guard who will be eligible in mid-December due to NCAA transfer rules, and added bodies in the front court, that Ole Miss finds it’s overwhelming optimism.

Insell said he doesn’t know if there’s been “as good a post tandem in terms of on the low block” in Ole Miss history than Taylor Manuel and Shelby Gibson

“We’re going to throw the ball inside,” he said. “We have some players that can score in there. We have great experience on the perimeter. Erika Sisk is a two-year starter and Shandricka Sessom with a chance of starting and there is a lot of experience out there with some talented young players.

“One thing that doesn’t get mentioned a lot is that we have recruited as well as anybody in the SEC and women’s basketball the last three years. We’ve signed one of the top three classes in our league for three straight years. Now those players are juniors, sophomores and freshmen with four seniors included with them, so that’s really where it is. It’s recruiting each and every year and following them up with good classes. Outside of South Carolina, we’re recruited just as well as anyone in this league if not better. We’re second in the league with top 100 players in the league that are on our roster, and that’s exciting. Our players have gown up. Last year, you felt like every game we were a player her or a player there away and we have two exciting transfers joining in with our returners and along with that we signed three outstanding prospects in the three freshmen, so we just keep adding depth. We’re not a small team; we have good size this season.”

Ole Miss returns 83.5 percent of its scoring. Manuel, a one-year graduate transfer, was a Big Ten All-Freshman selection at Purdue in 2013-14, as well as an All-MVC pick at Loyola Chicago the last two seasons.

“We have a well-rounded team,” Insell said. “Previously we relied so much on our guard play, but this year our post play is really strong and just the energy and enthusiasm that they bring every single day. We don’t’ have a lot of issues. I don’t have to raise my voice too much in practice, and I don’t have to get them going. They just know what is expected and they come out each day and work extremely hard. 

“This team has a huge chip on their shoulder; they think they’re a lot better than where the media has picked them. And I feel we’re a lot better than where we’ve been picked. We’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder all year and we’re excited about that.”

The Rebels will unofficially open their season Friday at 7 p.m. against Mississippi College in exhibition action.

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