April Hoops Day

NEW YORK – We've debated for days what's better, things like an NCAA first-round loss or an NIT Championship. The Rebels haven't had the former since 2002. In two days they could have the latter.

It was a big-time group of schools whose head coaches sat at the press conference table before the New York and national media here Monday afternoon. Ohio State, Florida, UMass, and Ole Miss.

Four impressive coaches, too, in Thad Matta, Billy Donovan, Travis Ford, and Andy Kennedy.

Look at where the programs are. Florida had back to back national titles the past two seasons. Ohio State was the runnerup to the Gators last season. UMass, in the NIT last season, is making its deepest run in any postseason play since it appeared in the 1996 NCAA Final Four across the Hudson River in the Meadowlands.

And Ole Miss is playing, as far as we can gather, its first game ever in Madison Square Garden.

When Ole Miss played St. John's in the NIT in 1989, that game was played on the SJU campus.

Each coach and player from each team tried to proclaim being here in the best possible light, and I believe they did so honestly. No doubt they all wanted to be in the NCAA tourney. Even NIT chair C.M. Newton said this isn't the NCAA Final Four, and they know it. It's basically what you make it, and this particular city is sports' biggest stage.

Matta is rebuilding after losing some great ones to the pros off a 35-win team.

Donovan is all but starting over after he lost most of his championship players from the past two years.

Matta said he called Donovan back early in the season and asked his advice on how to handle things.

"You think you've got problems?" Matta said Donovan asked, sarcastically.

Both 2007 NCAA title game teams have made the run to MSG in the NIT and have used this season to aim at the NCAA Tournament next season.

UMass' Ford has re-energized that proud program and is likely to have the most fans of any of the four teams here at the games. Proximity will probably see to that.

Ford's team beat Syracuse twice on its home floor, the first time a team has done that since 1923, so we were told and whatever good that accounts for. The Minutemen are capable.

Then there is us. The Ole Miss Rebels. It's been difficult for some to feel good about this NIT bid. That was a result of the mid-SEC season fall and some just couldn't get back up again as the team appeared to do.

But the noise has been made and the championship run remains. It will be interesting to see tonight if Kennedy's message of changing the goal from getting here to winning here got through.

Will a young backcourt and an old frontcourt for the Rebels play as well as they did at Virginia Tech and put it all together twice more?

Will Ohio State's young team, with just one starter back from last season, point guard Jamar Butler, play as well as it has lately, winning five of its last six, a similar run to the one the Rebels have been on recently?

This may not be one for the ages, but in the annals of Ole Miss hoops history, it's about as big as it's ever been. Save the one Sweet Sixteen year, all things considered this could top anything Ole Miss has done in men's basketball come late Thursday night.

The lights will be on and the mics will be hot. Ole Miss alum and Oxford native Ron Franklin will call the action.

I talked with him Monday at the press conference. It's the 17th straight NIT Final Four for Franklin to call for ESPN. He's very encouraged about the direction of the program under Kennedy. He's a tad bit concerned he might appear too excited about his alma mater being involved.

"I asked my wife if I sounded like I was leaning toward the Rebels in the game at Virginia Tech," he said. "Honestly, the team played so well I didn't have to sound biased. I could just talk about all the good things happening right there in front of me."

Just like he hopes to do tonight. Just like he homes to do again Thursday night.

Today's Dwayne Curtis' 23rd birthday. Kennedy says this NIT in NYC memory is mainly for the seniors - Curtis, Jermey Parnell, Kenny Williams, and Brian Smith. What a present for all of them two more wins would be.

How big a deal all this actually is will be debatable forever. Is this or an NCAA first-round loss better? Ole Miss isn't the only school here with those same questions.

Most likely the best answer is that it is what it is. And right now it's a chance for Ole Miss to shine in one of the world's greatest sports venues in one of the world's greatest cities.

Right now, all things considered, who could ask for anything more?

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