A fairly insular world

Ole Miss men's basketball.

In their fairly insular world, they go about their business. Wednesday night, they put their efforts on display again on one of the world's most visible basketball stages – Rupp Arena, home of the Kentucky Wildcats since 1976.

It's a place Ole Miss has won just once against the home team since the building opened. But Lexington, Ky., isn't a place Ole Miss has had much success playing Kentucky in any building. Before that lone win in 1998, Ole Miss hadn't beaten the Wildcats on their home floor since the Great Depression.

So north they headed on Tuesday, a team having lost eight of its last nine games this season and with little chance of changing that trend before 24,000 Wednesday night.

As the Rebels faced the Wildcats, they did so without leading scorer and rebounder Dwayne Curtis. That didn't help their cause. But some things in life are more important than a two-hour basketball game. Dwayne is right where he needs to be, at home with his family, mourning the passing of his brother. The funeral is Friday. The Rebels are hopeful Dwayne is back for the game against Auburn in Oxford Saturday night.

This season's continuing saga has become much more than just one particular difficult assignment. It's been one difficult assignment after another. Like for example a road game at Auburn a couple of weeks ago where, even after leading by 14 points late in the first half, they couldn't finish for a win. And at Mississippi State, the arch rival, which routed the Rebels by nearly 30 points five days ago. And then Wednesday night.

I get a sense and hear it said from the program that they knew there could be days like these, but I'm not sure how many of us saw them coming quite like they have.

They also knew there'd be days like a 10-point road win at Alabama and home wins over South Carolina, MSU, and Arkansas. With so many new faces on the roster and a couple of second-year assistant coaches trying to help get things turned back around, it was going to take time. That's what I hear. That's obviously what we all see. It is clearly taking some time.

The question has become how much time do they have?

At Indiana, Mike Davis has stepped down, effective at the end of the season. There wasn't enough winning in one of the country's premier men's basketball programs. Davis reportedly said Hoosier fans didn't embrace him and that they needed to be coached by one of their own.

It is somewhat ironic that Rod Barnes and Mike Davis are close friends. Davis, the Indiana coach, is an Alabama alum. Barnes, the Ole Miss coach, is an Ole Miss alum.

Has Rod been embraced? Certainly he was as a player here, and not only by adoring Ole Miss fans. I remember being told that at the SEC Tournament when Rod was a senior in 1988, the media gave him a standing ovation as he exited the court for the last time. I don't remember that happening before or since with any player at any level. That isn't what we are supposed to do, how we're supposed to act. But it was done by the media for Rod Barnes for his efforts and commitment as a player.

Certainly he was embraced as a coach when times were good and the team was winning. That was even before he was named head coach.

I remember some of us seeking Rod out after Ole Miss beat Rick Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats on Jan. 11, 1997, when he was still one of Rob Evans' assistants. We wanted to know what Rod thought, how he felt, after the Rebels won one of their biggest games in memory.

At this point, however, those embraces are fewer because there are less people waiting to extend them. Losing games, losing seasons, contribute like nothing else to that.

So they insulate themselves, and not totally of their own accord. People don't come around the program as often, don't want to be associated with it as much as before, don't know what to say or how to act; so some choose to ignore the situation almost completely.

But not totally insulated, because they can't be. I haven't seen Rod running and hiding for cover. He hasn't from us, the media, except last night on radio, and I wasn't there so I don't know why he didn't make it to the postgame radio show.

But after the other games, win or lose, and on each Monday of the conference season until Wednesday night, Rod has faced whatever came his way. Obviously it's his job to be there for those situations, but he's not backed down, not avoided our questions, not tried to be evasive when at times the tough questions were asked, which honestly isn't that often among the ones who cover Ole Miss sports. Some call that being soft from a media standpoint, that it isn't as difficult to coach at Ole Miss because, unlike basketball at Indiana or Kentucky, UCLA or North Carolina, or football at Notre Dame or Oklahoma, Texas or Ohio State, the media won't come down too hard on a coach whose record on the courts or fields is less than stellar.

That's accurate it appears. The media here is less likely to call for sweeping change or rolling of heads than some other places, even when many who read, watch, and pay money to support and attend games feel otherwise.

Some of that has to be because of location, right or wrong. Ole Miss is in Oxford, not Los Angeles, Austin, or even Jackson. Is that a good enough reason or excuse? Still it's the way things are here, it seems.

I think the media can almost dictate policy in certain situations and in certain places, and I'm not so sure that's the best thing in some instances. That approach seems to have become more widespread with the advent of 24/7/365 coverage of news and sports. There's got to be a constant story, and subscribers, viewers, readers often demand such.

Ole Miss men's basketball isn't Indiana. Never has been, likely never will be. I don't believe Rod Barnes will step down now. He probably won't step down at season's end. He continues to be encouraged about the future of this program. He is committed to the young players and his assistants. He believes next season will be better than this one. He believes the one after that could be better still.

Whether he coaches here next season or the next won't be decided by me. It won't be decided by the state's newspapers or TV and radio stations. It won't be decided by the fans, even if fewer show up next year than this year.

It will be decided by the people in charge of Ole Miss athletics. No revelation there. That's why they are hired to lead. That's why they are the ones who, when they evaluate everything, make decisions, often very tough ones, such as the situation with David Cutcliffe two years ago.

When the program began a down turn, recruiting didn't live up to NCAA Tournament standards, and losing seasons appeared, Rod was asked to compile a gameplan for a turnaround of the program, which on its course back then wasn't going to pull out of its nosedive. Unlike Cutcliffe, who appeared to stay his course, Rod did that. He made changes. He did much, maybe all, of what was asked of him.

Some seem to wonder if it was done soon enough. Did the changes come a year or two too late for the program not to crash and burn? Is the program headed groundward, or is the nose beginning to pull up and head skyward again?

No doubt that depends on who you talk to. Rod says the pullup is in motion. Rod also says he knew there'd be days this season when the Rebels looked lost, and there'd be other days when the Rebels looked like a team headed to postseason.

There are questions out there and many are asking them. But it's those questions and answers that can only be dealt with in an administrators-coach situation. Certainly we can't answer them.

The powers that be have to decide if they agree with Rod, and that may have been decided a couple of years ago when Rod laid out a plan for improvement. He also told them, it appears, that major progress wouldn't happen overnight.

If that plan included allowing this group of first-year players, and there are many in that group, to grow and mature and with only one senior on the team, then it's a waste of time and energy for those who seek changes after this season.

If it is deemed by those in charge that significant progress isn't being made, then perhaps they will visit making a change at season's end.

I still believe the latter would come as a surprise to Rod Barnes, given all that I know about the situation, although the communication lines between coach and administrators seem open and productive at this point.

Still, for the current program, it's all a somewhat insular world. For the sake of their health and well-being and because they are still trying to win games, it's probably wise that they're living that way.

OM Spirit Top Stories