Locker rooms are never pleasant after a loss. Certainly Tuesday night's wasn't. There appeared to be a feeling of embarrassment concerning the first half and at least some restored pride from their efforts in the second.
But collectively the season is over, and in some cases college basketball careers. That's never cause for celebration, unless a team wins the NCAA or the NIT.
The Rebels' 24-win season, which began with the roar of a perfect 13-0 start, ended with a whimper as a rebuilding Ohio State program that had lost so much from last season's national runnerup team proved they aren't so down after all.
Ole Miss won't be the NIT champs for 2008. Neither will Florida, the two-time defending NCAA champion. It will be Ohio State or Massachusetts.
Either way it really won't matter any more to Ole Miss fans. The book's closed on this one.
It was a book that had several important chapters, some of it beginning under a former regime, some of it continuing through this latest two-year run in the NIT.
The Rebels have won 45 of 69 games since Andy Kennedy was named head coach just two years ago. There's more winning on the way as the program continues to build. Just about everybody agrees on that, given the signees coming in and the fact that the younger players from this year's squad will be better for having gone through this season.
If this year's NIT run was about memories for the seniors, then some important ones were made along the way, like beating UC Santa Barbara and Nebraska at home and beating up on Virginia Tech at their place.
It's a shame that the final curtain came down for Dwayne Curtis, Brian Smith, Kenny Williams, and Jermey Parnell as it did. We'd all rather have seen them hoist the NIT hardward late tomorrow night in "the world's most famous arena" as it is called and then come back next season to help hang a banner in the rafters of Tad Smith.
We'll just have to remember these seniors for something other than any few dismal minutes vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The tough inside play of Parnell, how he came in overweight and out of shape for this level, his efforts to make himself a more fit and better player to contribute in the AK way.
The quiet demeanor but also the tremendous physical and basketball development of Curtis. The classy and appreciative way he handled all things tough for a college kid – the move from Auburn, sitting out a year, the death of his brother, the changing of the guard, the way he always put up with answering our many, many questions and smiled even. A gentleman.
The poise and contributions on and off the court of a coach's son in Smith. Tubby and Donna could have sent their son a lot of places. Sure, they encouraged him to come play for Rod Barnes. But that also meant Ole Miss, and his four years were special as he contributed to many exciting moments and victories and also contributed to the publicity for the school and program by being the son of a famous father in the same sport.
The meaningful words of Williams who was as reflective as any underneath Madison Square Garden. He's the one that said earlier he didn't figure he would ever come back to Ole Miss after his days were through, but with the way Kennedy and company had turned things around and how the fans had shown their appreciation for him and the team, he'll be back, he said.
Williams spoke just minutes after his college basketball career was over about the love he has for his teammates, "the guys" as he called them. He said he knows the future is bright for Ole Miss basketball.
"AK will see to that," he said emphatically.
"The Beard" will be missed, and so will DC and Brian and JP.
"It's hard," Kennedy said of putting into words from the NIT's postgame podium what these four mean. "I appreciate what they've done. Three of them we inherited and one (Williams) we brought in. Expectations were low for them, and they certainly exceeded that. They've set the foundation and given these young guys a path that hopefully will bode well for our program."
He, as everyone did, knew that their last one was not their best one, the 12-point loss to Ohio State was not the one they should be remembered for.
"I'm afraid the situation may have overwhelmed us a little bit," Kennedy said, honestly, in a situation some coaches would have shied away from admitting, "and I really don't have an explanation for that."
But it happened, and as I exited the media room, one of the longtime directors of the NIT said she'd seen it happen before, as we all have.
In this case a program that had been on the NCAA national championship game stage a year ago was more poised and prepared for this type situation than the one that was a second-round NIT program a year before and that hadn't been in the Big Dance in six seasons.
That was last night's picture, and it wasn't pretty – at the start. But the competitive drive and determination of the Ole Miss team and coaches, led by these four seniors, got things together and made it respectable, which nobody is bragging about. But at least they can hold their heads up.
"I was disappointed we dug that big a hole, but I'm not going to think about this loss or any loss," said Williams, the two-year guy of the group but as much a spokesperson for this team as any of the seniors. "I'm just going to take the positives and the valuable stuff I've learned so I can pass it on to other people."
Sounds like a plan, not only for Kenny but for this basketball program AK and company continue to build.
They aren't there yet, but they're getting there.
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