The Mississippi Rebels. Picked to place FOURTH in the Western Division of the SEC.
Last year nearly every one predicted that the Mississippi Rebels would finish fifth or sixth in the Western Division. Instead, Coach Rod Barnes guided them to the NCAA tournament and a Western Division conference championship. The conference record of 11-5 was followed by wins in the SEC tournament over Tennessee and Florida before a cold-shooting performance resulted in a loss to Kentucky. The overall record of 27-8 included wins in the NCAA over Iona and Notre Dame before elimination at the hands of national runnerup Arizona. After last year it may be foolhardy to predict anything but a Western Division title for the Rebels, but the team did lose three important seniors. Center Rahim Lockhart, 6'8", 255 lbs, averaged 13.0 ppg and 8.1 rebounds, and will be very hard to replace. Gone also are guards Jason Flanagan (7.2 ppg and second in assists) and David Holmes (6.3 ppg). Barnes must build his team from four experienced players, four players with limited experience, and five freshmen.
Jason Harrison, 5'5" senior, is the smallest player on the combined rosters of the twelve SEC teams, but no one is selling him short. Last year he averaged 7.1 ppg, topped the team in assists (104), and shot 37.9% from three-point range and 83.3% on his free throws. However, Barnes must be able to call upon larger guards in case an opponent is able to take advantage of Harrison's lack of height. There are two 6'3" junior shooting guards who can assist at the point guard position, namely David Sanders and Emmanuel Wade. Sanders averaged 6.9 ppg and gets most of his points by driving to the basket. Wade (4.4 ppg) is the better shooter of the two. Helping out these three will be a trio of freshmen, 6'0" Justin Johnson, 6'3" Jonathan Loe, and 6'2" Mario Jointer. The Rebel backcourt is likely to be competent but not outstanding.
Back to play the wing forward position is 6'7", 200 lbs sophomore Aaron Harper (9.2 ppg and 2.9 rebounds). Harper took the most three-point shots last year of anyone on the team (178) and made 35.4% of them. Closer to the basket he shot less effectively, but did connect on 75.0% of his free throws. The power forward, Justin Reed, was the freshman of the year in the SEC for 2000-2001. Reed, who is 6'8" and weighs 225 lbs, does nearly all of his shooting from middle range or close to the basket; he made only three treys last season, but connected on 47.8% of his shots from the field. Help for Harper and Reed will come from 6'9" junior Richard Kirklin, who is getting some additional experience this summer by playing internationally for a touring team, 6'7" sophomore Josh Hayes, and two 6'7" freshmen, Kendrick Fox and Chris Rhodes. Hayes (2.0 ppg) and Kirklin (1.9 ppg) are slender forwards who have shown signs of being dangerous from three point territory, but both saw limited duty last year.
The job of replacing the invaluable Lockhart falls to 6'10", 250 lbs junior John Gunn and 7'0" senior John Engstrom. Engstrom (1.0 ppg) played only 44 minutes last season and isn't likely to help much. Gunn played 225 minutes, averaged 2.7 ppg, is a reasonably good rebounder, and is a deadly (92.6%) shooter when he gets to the free line. It appears that Reed will have to help out Gunn at the low post position.
Undoubtedly the forward duo of Justin Reed and Aaron Harper is the main strength of the team. Rod Barnes has proved himself to be an excellent coach, and his teams always are quick, hardnosed, scrappy, and play good team defense.
The center position is a question mark. There isn't a great deal of experience in the back court.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
For the Rebels to have a good year John Gunn must come through at center and Reed and Harper must not fall into the sophomore slump. Although it is easy to underestimate Rod Barnes's teams, and realizing that not much separates the top four teams in the SEC west, I am predicting that the Rebels will finish fourth in their division.