UM-Auburn hoops - similar yet different

Today is a setting that's hard to figure as Ole Miss plays basketball at Auburn.

Back home in Mississippi and wherever Ole Miss fans are gathered, it will matter. When your team is ranked among the top 15 in the land, it always does.

At Auburn, it's a little different these days. There is decent basketball tradition, but really not anymore than there is at Ole Miss. During the Charles Barkley and Chuck Person era the Tigers got to the Elite Eight. Ole Miss made it to the Sweet Sixteen with Rahim Lockhart and Jason Harrison and their teammates.

I've always said probably Auburn and Georgia historically care less about men's hoops than any schools in the SEC. My bias won't let me say that about Ole Miss, although administratively through the years and with a 9,000 seat arena not filled for most games, some across the region probably throw Ole Miss in there as well. Hard to argue.

But here's the difference to me. If you give Ole Miss fans the product they want, they'll be there. It's why attendance at the past two games has been among the top crowds ever in Oxford for hoops. It's why more UM people will tune in at 4 p.m. today either by TV or radio than in most years.

Andy Kennedy and company have given Ole Miss fans a reason to care again, to pay close attention, and to fill up the seats at home games. There will even be a decent contingent of Rebel fans at Auburn today, provided they can get there in the weather conditions.

Back during the 1998-99 season, Auburn was ranked third in the country and hosted Ole Miss. Chris Porter was one of the elite players in the nation at the time. Their fans and students were excited. But the place wasn't full.

Yes, it was on a week night and was a late start for ESPN of about 8:30 p.m. No, they weren't playing Kentucky or Alabama.

But I said then that if that game was in Oxford and the roles reversed, you'd have every seat filled, every aisle filled, and folks standing outside desperately trying to get inside.

Some 9,400 or so can get in Tad Smith, at least the record book shows that. Auburn lists its capacity at 10,500. Tiger athletic officials actually reduced the number of seats in their coliseum over a decade ago. It used to seat 12,500 or more. But up top they put offices for their coaches and staff and removed some of the seating, about 2,000 seats that obviously they didn't need.

Now Auburn's going to build a new arena and hoops complex. Spend 95 million and it will only seat 9,500. Less seats but a better facility. Club seats and suites, too.

Auburn needs a new facility. The one it has now was built in the 1960s, just like Tad Smith Coliseum. Auburn probably could have gotten by another decade in the old one. But the administration and supporters came up with a plan to move forward, hoping to generate more interest and push the programs, both men and women, to new heights.

Constant chatter these days among Ole Miss fans concerns hoops facilities. They feel it's important to keeping the current staff and program intact.

Money has always proven to be a little harder to come by for Ole Miss than Auburn. Attendance figures for football and giving to the foundations outside of ticket sales prove that.

But all Kennedy has ever said is that he wants to continue to see Ole Miss – that's both administratively and the fans – push and progress and keep on committing to better basketball. Although not as fast as any of us would like, I think we're seeing that.

Yes the crowds have been terrific. All eight SEC home games will sell out this season. If that's ever happened at Ole Miss, it's been only a handful of seasons.

The administration is pushing and moving toward the BPF. Fast enough? Pete Boone said he'd like to break ground this spring so Ole Miss men's and women's basketball can move into it by the fall of 2009. To me that's realistic and showing progress.

The one thing Ole Miss has never had in basketball, at least on the men's side, that could prove this thing will actually work here is consistency. Just when things start going well, something happens.

It took until 1980 for the Rebels to even get to postseason play, and that was the NIT. By then Kentucky had been a national power for decades, Vandy was big into hoops, MSU had four SEC crowns under Babe McCarthy, Ray Mears had gotten Big Orange Country to support something other than football, Alabama hired C.M. Newton and made basketball a priority during the heart of the Bear Bryant era, Pistol Pete had put LSU on the map and Dale Brown was building a national contender on the bayou. You get the picture.

But a couple of years after Bob Weltlich got Ole Miss to postseason play in the early 80s, he left for Texas. Gentleman Lee Hunt couldn't get it done. Fans loved Ed Murphy until his one-liners and stand-up routine weren't backed up by enough wins. There was the feeling Rob Evans was looking for a chance to move back out west where he and his family were from almost as soon as they got here. When Arizona State called, he headed toward home. Rod Barnes was home but couldn't follow up on Evans' success with recruiting that could sustain the program to the NCAA or the NIT year in and year out.

There has been no long-term success for Ole Miss basketball, so fans and administrators have never really had the chance to build any type of continuity, to truly show basketball matters here.

And that is what Andy Kennedy has said all along - show me that basketball matters at Ole Miss.

Now is another chance. A coach and his staff that fans and players love is in place. Recruiting is at a high level like few times before. The administration understands there are needs facility-wise. The wins are coming. So are the fans and the students. The national media is all over this program.

College basketball gets as much national attention as football, or at least for the teams that win. The season is five months long, and lately Ole Miss has been either a Sports Center highlight or a score along the bottom ticker because of its winning and ranking.

So what's not to like about what's going on in hoops here?

Ole Miss people see that Auburn, a place that hasn't cared all that much about basketball and has had limited success, is about to make a push of monumental proportions. In three years the Tigers will be playing in a palace.

At Ole Miss, we haven't really decided yet what to do. And that's OK. But there probably needs to be some type of decision fairly soon as to a long-term plan for hoops.

After the BPF gets built, does Tad Smith get an extensive renovation, kinda like Wichita State's round hoops house?

After the BPF is built, does a new arena become a part of the master plan for Ole Miss, either building a new facility somewhere near Tad Smith or across Highway 6 on university land there?

There's a third option. Not doing anything as major as those two. But that's really not an option is it? Not for the future's sake.

Not when Ole Miss is trying to compete long-term in the SEC and on the national scene, trying to build that continuity of winning and postseason play and keeping coaches in place who are getting the job done, which is something that has never happened here in hoops.

Both groups – administrators and fans – know there has to be a major push for basketball. I hear it all the time from both. Pete and I talked about it just a couple of weeks ago when I was interviewing him for a lengthy Q & A for the magazine next month.

"Andy made a comment when somebody asked him how long he was going to be here," Boone said. "And he said I'm going to be accountable to you, but you need to be accountable to Ole Miss. What he's saying is, and I think he went on to say it, as long as he (Kennedy) feels like the Ole Miss people are putting in as much, not talking about it but actually putting in as much, effort and enthusiasm by attending games and by giving money to get the things he feels like he needs to have to be a national contender, then he's just as committed as the Ole Miss fans are. And I think that's important for people to realize."

I believe Ole Miss people realize that. I believe they know what has to happen.

Somehow, someway, Ole Miss needs to do what Auburn has done. A place that doesn't support basketball even as well as Ole Miss does, a place that has no more hoops tradition than Ole Miss, has stepped up in a big way and not only shown the grand plan but is about to put that plan into serious action.

Ole Miss will do that. There will be a major renovation of Tad Smith, or there'll be a new arena. No doubt in my mind. I believe in Ole Miss that much.

When and how are the important questions that remain to be answered.

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