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Friday, August 22, 2014

It’s early, but Rebel hoops is suddenly a hot ticket

COLUMN: I don’t know how or why, but it seems Ole Miss basketball is suddenly cool again. It can’t just be that the Rebels are riding their first 2-0 SEC start in Andy Kennedy’s tenure, because a road win over Tennessee (no matter how rare) couldn’t have been the sole agent to prompt Rebel students to pack out C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum against Missouri on Saturday.

And yet they did. I wasn’t there, but the pictures sent to me by various colleagues and friends were nothing short of astounding. Entering this week there’s a lifetime of conference play before anyone should rationally start talking about the long-lost concept of Ole Miss as a NCAA Tournament team, but the hope is palpable.

Is it because of Marshall Henderson, the chippy and chirpy shooting guard that’s added an arcade video game flare to Kennedy’s offense?

Is it the faith built by last season’s 2-1 run in the SEC Tournament, something the Rebels had never done under Kennedy?

Maybe it’s the returning foundation of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner in the post, and their sudden renaissance at the charity stripe.

I doubt it’s any of those individual merits, but I have no suggestions otherwise. For just over a decade basketball has been invisible at Ole Miss. Since Rod Barnes’ last quality team was run off the court by UCLA in 2002, the program’s much-maligned postseason woes have dovetailed with a crumbling, inhospitable facility and the awakening of the baseball program as a sort-of national contender.

Entire classes have come and gone through Oxford with no idea what it’s like to freeze waiting in line to get in for a sold-out home conference game, or what it’s like to rush the court after knocking off a Top 5 team (I did it in 2000 when the Rebels beat Auburn). The NCAA Tournament is little more than a gambler’s distraction in Lafayette County. But… possibly… no more.

Then again…

It’s absurd to talk about the postseason. Ole Miss is 2-0, but only 2-0 in conference play. They missed what could’ve been a crucial quality win on the road at MTSU in December, and were upset by Indiana State in Hawaii. They’re being bandied about in various bracketology projections, but they’ve been a hot pick in December and MIA in March many times.

Then again… they’re 2-0, with a win over a Top 10 team in Mizzou. The Tigers were on the road and shorthanded, but the latter is the kind of detail that fades by the time a selection committee starts looking at resumes. So far, this team is healthy — and Kennedy might ban any media member who strings together the letters A, C and L in their coverage over the next two months.

There’s no proof yet, nothing to indicate this season will truly be different. But much like the bizarre behavior of neighborhood animals before a sudden change in the weather, look at the peculiar behavior of these current Ole Miss students, most of whom were chewing on blocks and finger-painting the last time the Rebels were annually relevant in basketball.

Maybe a sold-out student section knows something the rest of us don’t. (January 15, 2013, Page 6)

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