Some Ole Miss basketball players and one assistant coach headed home this weekend. The Rebels play at Illinois-Chicago at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Ole Miss assistant Tracy Dildy is a graduate of UIC and a member of the school's athletic hall of fame. He was a two-year letterman for the Flames as a point guard. He later served as an assistant coach at UIC and also at another Chicago school, DePaul University.
Sophomore center Dwayne Curtis, the transfer from Auburn, is from Chicago. So are freshman center Marquis Young and sophomore guard Justin Cerasoli.
The Rebels, 4-1 on the season, haven't played a game in a week and a half, not since a 17-point blowout win over Louisiana-Monroe. The entire squad is looking forward to getting back into game action, but none moreso than the Chicagoland Rebels going home to coach or play.
"It means a lot to those guys. They'll have a lot of their families and friends there," said Ole Miss head coach Rod Barnes, who mentioned the Rebels had talked to Northwestern and DePaul as well as UIC for games in the future. "But it's a good thing for this program. We want to continue to play and recruit in the Midwest. It's good to take Ole Miss to Chicago.
"The kids from there made a commitment to come here," he continued. "Coach Dildy has done a great job of getting us there recruiting-wise. Now we need to go up there and show people who we are, play well, and win."
Rod told Curtis if he came to Ole Miss that he'd get him back to Chicago to play.
"And we did that mighty quickly," Barnes said, laughing.
Curtis is excited to be going north toward home this weekend.
"I will have a lot of people there," said the former Whitney Young High School star. "I'm excited. I used to go to games there (at UIC). I know some of their players. They recruited me some. So this is something I'm looking forward to, going back up there and playing."
Dildy said going back to his alma mater is special.
"It's the first time I've ever competed against them," he said. "A lot of the same people are there as when I was there, a lot of great people. It's a great university. But this (Ole Miss) is where I work now. I want to beat them just as bad as anybody else. But it will be fun, and we should have a lot of fans there."
Young, an Austin Community High grad, hasn't played in the Rebels' first five games, mainly due to back spasms. Cerasoli, of West Aurora High, transferred to UM from Seton Hall and won't play at all this season.
Illinois-Chicago is 3-4 so far. After a huge road win at Georgia Tech by 22 points, UIC has dropped its last two games, including a 75-74 loss to crosstown rival Chicago State last time out. The Flames are returning eight letterwinners and three starters from last year's 15-14 squad that ended the program's streak of three straight postseason berths. A reserve a year ago, senior forward Justin Bowen has led the offensive charge thus far this season, averaging 15.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals while shooting 59.0 percent from the floor. Sophomore JUCO transfer forward Othyus Jeffers is posting 11.9 points and 7.0 boards. That duo has helped the Flames enjoy an advantage on the boards of nearly 10 rebounds per game.
In his 10th campaign as UIC head coach after serving as an assistant coach to former U of I head coach Lou Henson at the main Illinois campus (Champaign-Urbana), Jimmy Collins is the program's winningest head coach with 146 victories and has guided the Flames to four postseason appearances, including three NCAA Tournaments (1998, 2002 and 2004).
As for the Rebs, even though they haven't played a game in a week and a half, Barnes and company have still been busy.
"This is probably the toughest time of the year," Barnes said. "You try to stress to your guys to do the right things academically. You are telling them to get all their papers in and do well on all their tests. But at the same time you are telling them how important the game is this weekend. You want to push them so they'll get better. But you don't want to push them too hard so they won't feel like studying.
"Usually with a younger team it's tougher, because the discipline that an older guy might have might not be there for a younger guy. You try to balance all that. At the beginning of the week you want to lay off a bit. At the end of the week you want to push more, but then we have a game coming up. My experience is you get what you can out of them and try to put all the pieces together before the next game.
"It's even tougher when you travel for a game (after exams). We finish exams Friday and then fly that night. Then we play Saturday. So hopefully, especially with this many new guys, they'll be able to handle it."
Rod says even though the Flames have been up and down this year, they are a talented team.
"They're a great rebounding team, especially on the offensive end," Barnes said. "They like transition. They're going to play man to man or 2-3 zone. They beat Georgia Tech by 22 points. But then they lost a couple of home games. I'm sure they're searching a little right now. We really don't know what we'll see from them. They may change their lineup or the way they've been playing because they've been so up and down.
"Our goal is to go up there and play well and win. We've got to play our style and do what we do. We have to be prepared for whatever. They may play 40 minutes of zone or they may man us and press us. Hopefully we'll be up to the challenge."
Rod said the Rebels are still coming together and finding the right mix with so many new guys on the roster.
"I know Todd and Bam and Dwayne right now," Rod said. "After that, we'll see. I really like what I've been seeing in (6-7 freshman) Mike Smith. I might even start him in this game. UIC is a little bit tougher team. They rebound the ball and we may need some size there. Lately I've also tried Dwayne some at the four and Jermey (Parnell) at the five and Trey (Hampton) at the three. We may have to do that at times this season. There are some things I like about it and some things I don't.
"One day we put Clarence (Sanders) in the starting lineup for Londrick (Nolen). So we're not settled yet. We'll try some different things and see what will work. I know Todd will be playing. I know Bam will be playing the way he's played so far. And I know Dwayne will be out there. Right now we'll just see how things go. We have several possibilities and combinations, and that's good."
After the UIC contest, the Rebels start a stretch of five games in nine days on Tuesday night in Oxford against Saint Louis University at 7 p.m.
Rebs in the Windy City for game at UIC
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