I figured before the season started we'd all be glad when the 2004-05 men's basketball season at Ole Miss was over. It's why I joked last summer and fall that the best way to watch this season would be to hold your hands over your eyes and peep through your fingers during games, closing them together when things got ugly. And I thought it might get ugly at times.
I even told Rod that, so I made no secret about it. And it wasn't meant to insult the players or coaches. But I knew what might happen this past season. We all did.
Until help arrived for 2005-06.
Justin Reed was gone. Aaron Harper was gone.
The load of carrying this team fell on the shoulders of Cavadas Nunnery and Kendrick Fox and Tommie Eddie and Justin Johnson and Chris Rhodes and Ed Glass and Marvin Moore – seniors all.
It didn't look good, did it? And honestly it didn't turn out that well.
Truth be known though, I think most Ole Miss fans would say the men's basketball team performed better and won more games – 14 – than most of them felt they would in the preseason.
Still it was the third losing season in a row.
My fears for this team were confirmed when I saw us struggle to pull away from South Carolina State until late in the first contest of the season in Milwaukee for a 1-0 start, only to follow that up with lopsided losses to Air Force and Illinois State. I still don't understand why we didn't have an exhibition game before that tourney.
There was no inside play at the BCA, and the Rebels didn't appear to have anybody who could score. Junior juco newcomer Londrick Nolen was going to have to step up and be a scorer, and somebody was going to have to help him – sophomore Todd Abernethy was a candidate, along with maybe newcomer Brandon Patterson, who we saw in preseason practice could fill it up from outside.
At 1-2 after the BCA tourney, I thought it might be time for Rod to go wholesale with a youth movement. In remembering my conversations with him after Milwaukee, he was considering it.
Then came a win over Tennessee Tech in Oxford to move to 2-2, a couple of close losses at Arkansas State and to Florida State in Oxford, then a nice and unexpected win on the road at Memphis.
The veterans were still playing, along with a blend of some of the younger guys, and a complete youth movement was history.
Rightfully so. Because at 2-4 before Memphis, the Rebels went on to a 9-4 non-SEC mark and were snapping at the heels of an NIT bid.
But they had to win at least six more. As we sit here, they only got five more total, and only four of them came in the regular season.
The loss to Arkansas at home on Feb. 5 by a point was a killer, a real blow to any NIT hopes.
The loss to Kentucky by three at home on Jan. 19 damaged the Rebels' postseason cause. Of course, the two-point loss at Arkansas State earlier was detrimental.
Let's just say the Rebels get the win in Jonesboro, then later pick up what should have been a win over the Razorbacks in Oxford, and they are 15-14 heading to Atlanta. Got a chance at something then.
Of course the flip side is that some of the wins were close as well. If Tommie Eddie doesn't bomb a 3 late, we don't beat VCU in Richmond. Or if we don't close things out against Tennessee in a two-point win at home, the Vols leave Oxford with a "W."
Heading to the SEC tourney 13-16, the Rebels had nothing to play for but pride. They got a win over South Carolina – as difficult as it was, late monitor watching by the refs and all.
Following the loss to Alabama to end it all at 14-17, with support from the administration already in place via the contract confirmation last week, Rod Barnes could now focus on next year and the new additions to his program.
Michael White and Tracy Dildy were new coaches added to the staff to join Eric Bozeman and Grant Pate. No doubt those two additions paid off this year, especially in recruiting, and will continue to as they all look to next year – starting now.
"I thought we made strides this season, except for the wins and losses," Barnes said. "I thought we got back to playing the way our fans like for us to play, playing hard, playing with a lot of heart, and never giving up. Obviously I am disappointed, because we had so many chances for this group of kids to win. They put the work in and did it right. We just fell short. I couldn't ask for more from them than they gave."
Rod said he believes the 2004-05 Rebels set a tone for the years ahead.
"When we win – and we're going to win – I am going to always point back to this year's group of guys. The last two years I've been frustrated toward the end of the season, because we had some of the same things happen over and over. I thought we lost our edge. I thought we lost something extra. It was almost like people said ‘If you get Ole Miss down, they won't fight back.' This year's team fought all year.
"I was demanding on this group, more than any group in the last two or three years. I demanded our guys be unselfish and become more of a family. We got that back and that is exciting."
Rod says he looks forward to seeing the new guys mesh with the returnees.
"With the kids coming back and with the recruits coming in, we are anxious to get started. I know the type of guys we have in this program. I know what they will give to this program. And they are very receptive to whatever you tell them to do.
"Todd Abernethy is doing what you're supposed to do. He's very unselfish. He helped us this year by coming off the bench much of the season (and won the SEC's 6th man award). Now he really understands what leadership means and he can step up even more.
"To have a kid like Dwayne Curtis already in our program (6-9, 290, sophomore transfer from Auburn with three years' eligibility left), he's not a newcomer. He will step right in. He was a factor this year, and he is a good leader and will have an impact next year.
"Londrick Nolen started off really well but struggled down the stretch. We'll work with him and Brandon Patterson and Jeremy Parnell. We depended on Londrick so much early. He is one of our best athletes. He will be better for what he went through this season."
To the point, Rod believes next year will be better, and that includes more wins.
"There's no doubt in my mind we'll have a good season, because we have the ingredients to have a good season," he said. "We'll be more talented. How good we can be will depend on how a couple of our young kids come along.
"We'll be better because of Dwayne Curtis. Once we add those other pieces to the puzzle, we feel good about what we can do."
One scenario already being talked about is a front line with both Curtis and Parnell (6-9, 245) playing at the same time for a much stronger, more physical, taller front line.
"Playing them together is something we'll do, and we look forward to working with both those guys this spring."
Parnell looks forward to that possibility as well.
"Coach Barnes has told me I am his project," said Parnell, who appeared in 26 of the Rebels' 31 games and averaged nearly 9 minutes a contest on the season. "He is talking about moving me to the four position. The front line ought to be pretty good. I think I can bring some scoring and more rebounding. I need to be more aggressive and stop thinking so much and just play. Let the game come to me and just play. It takes a while to learn the system, and you have to go hard in everything you do. I'm ready to work out and get prepared for next season."
Other returning players said they, too, are looking forward to better days ahead.
"Even though I didn't get much playing time, I believe I will in the future," said freshman point guard Brian Smith. "Todd and I are the only point guards returning. I am confident we can do the job. I learned from the seniors (Nunnery and Glass) that you have to be intense all the time and every day at practice and in games. It's an adjustment."
"I'm excited about the future," Abernethy said. "I'm excited about the returning guys and the recruiting class coming in. We'll start this spring getting better and working toward next year. I think my role next year could be either point guard or shooting guard. It's up to coach. I'm fine either way, and whatever makes the team better.
"I grew up a lot more this year and matured a lot," Todd continued. "I had more confidence and also my shoulder felt good and I wasn't worried about that. The upperclassmen have to step up and lead the program now (with so many seniors gone and so many newcomers). They know the work ethic and what it takes to play at this level."
"My first year here was a great experience, and I learned a lot," said freshman guard Brandon Patterson. "I tried to come in and listen and work hard. I gotta keep working at all parts of my game so I can help even more next year and in the years ahead."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a story on Ole Miss men's basketball Saturday. It was devoted to the "Rebels' promising future" and it focused on the incoming class, which it said ranked No. 1 in the entire SEC and 4th in the country.
It is because of that type assessment that Rod said, despite the losses, the last 12 months for Ole Miss men's basketball have been positive.
"Since last spring, we've had a lot of success with the coaches we hired, to the recruiting class, to taking a team not many thought could compete and competing game in and game out," Rod said. "I think because of the contract situation now that people will see us again do well in the recruiting process between now and next fall. I think this puts the guys that we've signed at ease. They now know I will be here. I was telling them I would be, and now they know for sure."
In a day when college coaches are in a revolving door situation and three straight losing years might end some careers at a particular institution, Barnes is happy for the opportunity to move things forward at his alma mater heading into year eight of his tenure as head coach.
"I'm grateful and thankful, obviously to God, but also that Pete Boone and Robert Khayat made a commitment or a statement or a show of confidence in me, and that's what this is all about; what college athletics is all about.
"I know we have to win. I realize that. But because of what we've done off the court and how our staff has handled things, they realize things are getting better. I believe, and they believe, that we are going to win again.
"They realize, and we discussed this, that I got hired as a 32-year-old head coach. I've fought some battles and I've been through some things. Billy Donovan, Buzz Peterson, Tubby Smith, Mark Gottfried, John Brady all had head coaching jobs before they got to this level. I think they know we've built a foundation. I am more confident than ever. And that doesn't necessarily have to do with the contract.
"I truly feel better now than at anytime since I've been at Ole Miss. Because of what we've been through, there's no doubt in my mind that I'm better. I felt like going into this season that even though I wasn't completely sure I would be retained, our players will tell you I didn't coach like that. I had to focus on giving these kids everything and being fair with them, and in the end things would take care of themselves."
Obviously that is what happened.
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