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Ole Miss basketball is the circle that must be broken

COLUMN: It’s the story as old as Andy Kennedy’s tenure in Oxford.

An energetic, no-nonsense coach cut from the mold of a proven winner (Bob Huggins) is able to recruit talent heretofore unseen to a virtually tradition-less school filled with football fans.

The leaky, ugly, claustrophobic facilities are a national joke, so much so that recruits aren’t even shown the arena on visits.

Yet the coach manages to land good (but not great) players. The team shows promise in spurts, usually early. The talk begins:

“This is what it’s like, huh? He’s got a point about how bad this arena is. Hope we don’t lose him to a big time hoops school. Man, we need to support this team more.”

Then the inevitable fall — injuries, arrests, or “incidents” — one or more happen each season and derail the building promise of a NCAA Tournament bid, the first since Rod Barnes did it last in 2002.

Peppered in is an inexplicable loss to an inferior team in conference play — I’ve jokingly called this the “Auburning” over the years. The RPI sinks to sub-bubble status while the on-court play and strategy seems stuck in second gear.

Blame game
A lack of depth is blamed: pick a year and it’s either point guard, perimeter shooting, bigs down low or speed in transition.

Finally, there’s a last-gasp flash — a streak of conference wins really, really late, or like 2012, a two-game run in the conference tournament. A week or so later we find out it’s all for nothing, and that despite another winning season, and despite the fact that the coach in question now has more than any other Ole Miss basketball coach we can remember, the Rebels are headed to the NIT.

The blame starts. Some say it’s the basketball budget and the facility, but the budget and the facility can’t be improved if boosters don’t pony up. Boosters won’t pony up if they’re not excited about the program. Those around the staff say this is the best they can do, that the inconsistency of losing just those one or two extra games that prevent a tournament bid are rooted in a lack of support.

Fans shrug and admit they aren’t a hoops school, despite the fact that when the team wins early in the year, the terrible facility is sold out and hopping. National basketball writers scoff at frustrated Ole Miss fans and warn them that they can’t do any better.

Then nothing happens until the next season starts. Some new talent comes into the leaky, ugly place, and the coach wins just enough games — sometimes almost exactly, down to a single loss — to not make the dance. Both sides express their frustration, both sides make their excuses.

There’s little doubt that Ole Miss basketball has all but squandered their best chance of the entire Kennedy era to make the tournament. The SEC is awful, the national pool is mediocre, they have/had enough bigs and added the perimeter scorer that was supposed to be the missing link from last season.

Get ready: Ole Miss won’t make the NCAA Tournament. The two sides will start with their excuses all over again.

Unless something changes.

 (February 22, 2013, Page 6A)

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