Basketball season is here

Ole Miss opens the season Sunday at noon in the BCA Tournament in Milwaukee.

Basketball season is upon us. Seems to always sneak up on us this time of year.

At places like Kentucky or Indiana, Kansas or Duke, they talk hoops all year ‘round. Not quite that way here, especially with football still much on the minds of many.

Football's actually on the minds of many year ‘round here. Deep South thing, you know.

I remember a trip up the east coast a few years ago. I was in Virginia. It was June. I picked up a newspaper and found a whole page on ACC basketball.

In June.

That might happen in Kentucky but not anyplace else in the SEC.

Basketball has never been our league's top sport as it has in the ACC. That league is trying to become more football-oriented with the additions of Georgia Tech and Florida State several years ago and now with Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College coming on board.

In the SEC, besides the Wildcats, we got a bit of a late start on hoops for whatever reasons. The Big Ten had a jump on us with some storied old programs like Indiana and Purdue (a school which actually mixes both football and basketball well, it seems). A lot of schools up there have good basketball heritage – Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, others.

The Big 12 is still led by Kansas, although Oklahoma State is up there close. Oklahoma and Missouri have been hoops powers at times. Kansas State was years ago and is trying to revive its program, although with the Jayhawks in the same state it has been tough.

When the Southwest Conference schools in Texas joined the Big 8 to form the Big 12, those four got more basketball serious. Texas started trying to have better hoops a couple of decades ago. Texas Tech made a splash with Bob Knight's hire. Texas A&M has a new head coach and once again tries to make a push in hoops.

(Do you ever remember Texas A&M being in the NCAA men's basketball tournament? I don't.)

West Coast college basketball used to be all UCLA. Now Arizona, Stanford and a handful of others have caught up. Even Gonzaga has made a case for the little schools who could.

It's indeed hoops time for college teams. Mississippi State starts Thursday and Friday in an NCAA-sanctioned tournament with home games in Birmingham. (A Mississippi school playing home games in Alabama, of all places, because of the state flag. I still find that whole ordeal disturbing from just about every angle.)

The Rebels open Sunday at noon in Milwaukee, the first of three games they will play in the Black Coaches Association Tournament.

Let me clarify something I had asked to me a week or so ago. No, the teams involved do not have to have a black coach to play in this tournament. It is simply named this and sponsored as such. Just thought I would clear that up for any still wondering.

The Rebels will face South Carolina State first. South Carolina State would probably be on par with a Jackson State in this state – a historically black school with a decent sports program.

This year, however, South Carolina State returns all five starters from a team that won 18 games last year, won its league, and is projected to do so again this season.

Since the Rebels have several players who will see their first live action (Jeremy Parnell, Brandon Patterson, Londrick Nolen, Brian Smith), and since there was no exhibition game played before this tournament, call me concerned that this one will be tougher than we want or maybe fans expect.

The Rebels will be bigger and taller than SCS. They appear to be a shorter, athletic team that will obviously come in with a lot of confidence, experience, and looking to upset a Southeastern Conference foe.

The Rebels will depart early Saturday morning and practice in Milwaukee. The games will be played at Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee, site of – up to that point – the most significant win in Ole Miss men's basketball history.

It was March 12, 1999, and the Rebels defeated Villanova 72-70, the first NCAA Tournament win in the program's history. Two days later they had Michigan State on the ropes before losing 74-66.

Michael White will remember that weekend in Wisconsin. It was the last time he put on a Rebel uniform. This week coat and tie will be his attire as he rejoins Ole Miss as an assistant coach.

His last game as a Rebel player in Bradley Center; his first game as a Rebel coach in Bradley Center.

Eric Bozeman, a Barnes assistant since day one, will recall those games against Villanova and Michigan State. So will Barnes.

But the cover of the media guide and the poster schedules this season simply have this phrase on them – "All Eyes Forward"

Since that special weekend in Milwaukee in March 1999, the Rebel program reached its zenith with the Sweet Sixteen appearance two years later and followed that up with a trip back to the NCAAs in Pittsburgh the following year to face UCLA.

But then things soured. A 14-15 season in 2002-03 was followed by a 13-15 season in '03-'04.

Recruiting wasn't what it had to be to continue the success. Fan support waned as the program struggled.

Before things got any more out of hand (and with most fans beginning to question if he would survive), Barnes made necessary and important changes to his program when he added White and assistant coach Tracy Dildy to his staff.

No need to go into all that further here. You know the rest of the story.

But the next chapter in the saga begins at noon Sunday. Actually that is not correct.

It begins Wednesday.

It appears Barnes and staff will bring in perhaps his most impressive recruiting class of the entire seven years of his program, one that in time will lead the Rebels back to the NCAA Tournament.

Wednsday is an important day for Rod, for the program, and for Ole Miss. A lot of work has gone into making sure Ole Miss has the talent to again succeed in men's basketball.

Gone are the days of SEC West titles (1997,1998, 2001) along with six consecutive seasons of postseason play, and the reality of the Sweet Sixteen is that it's been four seasons now since that significant accomplishment.

"All Eyes Forward"

Starting Wednesday with the signings and continuing Sunday and Monday and Tuesday of next week, the new era of the Rod Barnes program begins.

There will be some bumps. There will be more rough times.

There is also a light at the end of the tunnel, one we haven't seen for a couple of years.

There will need to be patience. There will need to be support.

There will be few easy games, but you will enjoy watching the younger, newer players get better and give it their all for the cause.

Host school Marquette, Penn State, Air Force, Illinois State, Jacksonville State, Western Carolina.

In addition to Ole Miss and South Carolina State, that's your field in Milwaukee. The Rebels' bracket has Jacksonville State and Air Force in addition to SCS.

Every team will play three games. Whether you win or lose your first game determines the time for the second game.

It's always been tough to get Ole Miss fans to really sink their collective teeth into basketball season before the end of football season. Being an all-around Ole Miss fan and not just a football fan only, I've never truly understood why that is since we are all capable of enjoying and concentrating on more than one thing at a time, don't you agree? I'd love to see our fans really be attentive to and supportive of the hoops teams as well as many of our programs all year long.

Maybe I'm dreaming.

Even during the winning years when an Oklahoma or a Kansas State or a Louisville would come to Oxford in December for men's hoops, the coliseum wouldn't be totally full.

That's always been a shame and a disappointment to me, knowing how much good it would do Ole Miss and this school and this program if all the seats were filled.

I don't think these BCA Tournament games are on TV. I do imagine there will be a lot of Rebel fans who turn their radios on long about noon on Sunday.

This is as it should be.

Hopefully victory No. 1 of the new era will come in game No. 1. If it doesn't, then they'll try again on Monday.

It ought to be an interesting year - starting Wednesday with signing day.

OM Spirit Top Stories