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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Want more March Madness? Be prepared to work for it

COLUMN: If you’re still angry or upset about Ole Miss’ last possession loss to La Salle in the NCAA Tournament, that’s OK. It wasn’t the easiest way to end things, to end a previously unthinkable run back to March Madness. 

This was a Rebel program thought to be dead so many times this season, and all of sudden, it finally was.

Be upset — that’s good, because it means you care. But also be mindful of the future. It bears repeating (I stated this in a column immediately following the SEC Tournament) that the unofficial mandate for head coach Andy Kennedy to “justify his existence” in Oxford was to make the NCAA Tournament. He has my mandate as a media member, and he should have yours as a fan.

He did more than just “getting there” too — the Rebels came back from double-digit deficits three days in a row in Nashville and won the school its first conference tournament in three decades. He also coached an extremely impressive game in the second round of the NCAAs, leading the Rebels to an upset of Wisconsin.

Be upset, but also be ecstatic. Ole Miss isn’t in the Sweet 16, but for a solid week they were the talk of the college basketball world thanks to their work in Nashville and the “originality” of star shooter Marshall Henderson.

Be ecstatic, but also be ready for the future, and be ready to work. Did ya have fun these last few weeks? Wanna go ride that wild March Madness coaster again? Then you’re going to have to invest in Ole Miss basketball, figuratively and literally. There will be no coaching search. Banish the thought. Kennedy got the monkey off his back and more, and should now be flooded with the same kind of support that Hugh Freeze is enjoying and that Mike Bianco used to build a mini-empire on one side of Old Taylor Road. You’ll have to invest, literally: Buy season tickets if you’re a local or alumnus.

Support the team during the student-less days of December and January, when the ‘Tad Pad’ has normally suffered an energy-free din. If you’re a student, show up, leave your Grove-based pretensions at the door and make manic, goofy noise in color-coded bunches. Embrace the silliness of student fandom in college basketball. And keep showing up, not just for ESPN games against Kentucky. For all his less-than-accurate quotes, Henderson was dead on in criticizing student support when Ole Miss looked out of contention.

The literal investments must come — long strings of sell outs to impress recruits and national pundits, as well as the road ahead to a brand new arena that Kennedy, the team and you, the fans, deserve. I’d humbly suggest to Ole Miss’ fundraising-minded A.D. that an auction be held for the highest bidder to push the demolition button on Tad Smith.

Become a better fan

But even more than the beyond-late delivery of a new arena, it’s most important to invest figuratively. Invest your fandom. Invest your attention, your mania, your SEC brand of live-and-die reverence. Become a better basketball fans. I’m not saying that Ole Miss has to become Memphis or Duke or Indiana, but upping the hoops IQ couldn’t hurt (football-centric sportswriters included).

Years ago, in the middle of the program’s run of almost-bids, Kennedy said that a Midnight Madness tip-off event wouldn’t really be a good idea for the program. He didn’t state it specifically, but he was obviously concerned about potential turnout from fans — those events only work when arenas are sold out and fans are buck wild.

Again, no one’s confusing Lafayette County with Tobacco Road, but I find it hard to accept that Ole Miss can’t produce 6,000 fans “in spirits” at a sporting event around midnight. Last year’s Square Jam is a great start, but can and should be bigger.

If you had fun this March, there’s no reason you can’t have fun in the years to come, but Rebel fans have work to do. (March 27, 2013, Page 8)

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