A group of Ole Miss students who caught on with the spirit of the revived men's basketball program last year are helping to give it a push even more this year.
They're excited, enthusiastic, and willing to help out, even if it means staying up all night or catching a few Zs under a tailgate tent or in a folding chair, which they did Sunday night in front of Tad Smith Coliseum. Student season tickets went on sale today at 6:30 a.m.
Most of them are hoops junkies or big Ole Miss fans. Others are just hungry for a winner after a fourth straight losing football season, which means seniors on the four-year plan haven't experienced a single winning football season in college.
But this was more about basketball than anything else. They were a part of a winning season in men's hoops for the first time in their college careers last year, and now they want it again. And more.
They saw the exhibition game Friday night. They saw the potential. They believe in the program and are excited about it. They want others to join them.
"It means a lot to be a part of something where maybe a thousand people were in the stands this past year to be a part of the biggest crowd in Tad Smith history later in the same year," said Chandler Rowlen, a Brandon senior likely looked to as the leader of the group. "Just to really feel like a part of that. The coaches and the players always thank us for our hard work and support. We look at it as coming out to a basketball game and having a great time."
Rowlen and his fellow K-villers know Andy Kennedy and his staff and players have changed things for the better here. They also hope they've helped get the word out, too – not for themselves but for the program and for their school.
"We feel like we've been able to mobilize the students to come out and see that this is a really great product, that this is something awesome," Rowlen said. "We get to attend and watch and support, and a lot of students have really embraced that."
Last year was almost a "catch-on" type situation for the students. This year they want to take it another step.
"We were just sitting around talking about it, and this year we want to do the K-ville thing and have memberships and get this thing started right," Rowlen said. "What better way to do that than to come out here tonight and camp out. If a lot of people come out to do this, then that's great. If not, then they'll hear about it and say Monday or Tuesday that we missed out. We've got to go get our tickets. It's a win-win situation for us, and we just want people to be interested in the program."
A win-win indeed. They want the students to be at the games. They plan to wear the same type shirts, red ones with some slogan they'll come up with. They plan to do some tailgates, like they did last year before some home games. They will make a road trip or two, like they did last year to support the team.
But it isn't about the tailgate or the pregame party. It's about the game and supporting their team for these students.
"With football a lot of fans tailgate and get to the stadium 30 minutes before kickoff," Rowlen said. "We want to be in the stands as soon as the gates open and fill up those student seats. We like to tailgate and hang out with some Rebel fans who are passionate about basketball. But it's all about the game for us."
And what would a group like this be without a guy from Kentucky among them? John Blevins from Manchester, Ky., is a first-year UM law student. Talk about hoops crazy. Blevins went to Starkville on Saturday to watch his alma mater, University of the Cumberlands, play State – and play the Bulldogs well in a 71-60 loss.
"It would have been double points if we'd won and beaten State, too," said Blevins, who appears to already understand what it means to be an Ole Miss student.
It was basketball that got Blevins to Ole Miss.
"My wife, Savannah, and I came down here to watch Ole Miss and Kentucky play last year. It was the first time we'd been to Oxford. The experience we had here at Ole Miss at the basketball game led us to Oxford. We stayed three or four days and really enjoyed it. Got to know the school and the town. We love it here."
One member of the crew wore a neon green t-shirt to games last year and sat on the front row. He is no longer at Ole Miss. His roommate last year, Matt Mazzone of Atlanta, a sophomore this year, wore the neon green in his honor to Friday's exhibition game but says he probably will wear red with the others from now on.
"I may bring it but I don't think I'll wear it," he said. "Kinda carry on the tradition."
Mazzone's cousin dated former Rebel wide receiver Bill Flowers. He came over for games, loved it, and decided to attend Ole Miss.
"I was a big basketball fan in high school, so I definitely get into it," he said. "It's awesome that they are expanding the student section here (with bleachers all the way to the top of the coliseum in three end sections). We're making progress every year, so that's great."
Clay Shepherd, a senior from McComb, played basketball for four years in high school at North Pike. He's a lifelong Ole Miss fan. The senior says being a part of K-ville is a natural for him.
"I came up here to games as a kid, and I followed college basketball," he said. "I kept up with Coach Kennedy at Cincinnati and a little bit even at UAB."
Shepherd says he's one of the group who wears a wig to games.
"It's a blue wig and the middle section of it is red. We couldn't find any of them from Ole Miss, of course, so we ordered them through the Buffalo Bills website. It had a mask on it and a Buffalo Bills emblem on the forehead. We cut it off and changed it."
What people wear to games and the social aspect has always been a big deal at Ole Miss. Shepherd says they move past that to support the team.
"We're trying to help build a basketball tradition. It's a nice transition from dressing up for football games and to just go crazy at basketball games. Maybe that will evolve to more people actually doing the things we do at basketball games at football games. Time will tell."
Shepherd says one of the special moments he remembers happened after the Rebels lost a second-round game to Florida in the SEC tourney in Atlanta.
"We were in the hotel lobby and the team was walking in. There were some students there but more alumni. I went to shake Kenny Williams' hand, and when he shook my hand he kinda pulled me in and gave me a hug and a pat on the back and said ‘I'm sorry I couldn't win it for you.' He was upset, and you can just see the passion that they have."
Ben Piper, a senior from Good Hope, Ga., said he had a class with Rowlen, and that's how he became involved.
"We were talking about it in class last year, and we said there had to be some other students who would want to do this. That was early last season, and there were probably a few dozen of us then. The next thing we knew it grew into 150 at games and then 250 and then a whole student section. Then there was the white-out game against Alabama with a record crowd. It's all coming together again this year. At Ole Miss a lot of people come here because of the football tradition. But there's a lot of students here who have memories of basketball."
"The coolest thing to me was after the Kentucky game last year," said Rowlen, which was the only loss of the season for the Rebels at home, and also the first SEC home game of the season. "We weren't really expecting it, because we knew they'd be bummed out after a loss. But the players came over to us and high-fived us. And right then we all said we're on board with these guys. We're sticking with ‘em win or lose. That's kinda when we knew there was something special with this team and this program."
Students show support for men's hoops
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