Ole Miss fans flock to buy overpriced football season tickets every spring but much fewer show up for basketball games during the winter months. When the football program takes a hard nose dive, fans switch over to baseball. Basketball seems to be an afterthought here in Oxford.
Which makes sense considering Ole Miss has never been, and probably will never ever be, a basketball school.
And that’s okay. This is Mississippi, after all, land of high school football. I’m not writing this to suggest Rebel sports fans “should” follow basketball. Rather, I write to question the Ole Miss athletics department’s complacency.
When does “good enough” stop being good enough?
For context, Rebel basketball played its first official game in 1909. That year, the program’s record stood at 1-4. Probably not “good enough,” but the program was young.
“Give it time,” I’m sure someone said.
In 1922, Ole Miss joined the Southern Conference, a precursor to the SEC. Just six years later, on February 28, 1928, the Rebels defeated Auburn 31-30 and captured their first conference championship. Their next championship would not arrive until 2013, a lengthy 85 years later. That’s approaching Chicago Cub territory. Or in other words: not good enough.
But no one really cares about the SEC tournament, right? It’s all about the NCAA tournament. That’s where the big money and fandom lies.
At its inception, the tournament’s format included spots for eight teams. Over time, however, the tournament gradually expanded and in 1980 the field grew to 48 teams. The Rebels got their first taste of NCAA action in 1981; they lost their first and only game of that year’s tournament. Since then, Ole Miss has qualified for the tournament seven more times, making the Sweet Sixteen round just once (as a No. 3 seed in 2001). If that’s good enough, I don’t want to be an Ole Miss basketball fan.
To a certain extent, it feels like the university understands where I’m going with this piece. On July 14, 2014, Ole Miss broke ground on the 96.5 million dollar Pavilion, a state-of-the-art 9,500 seat stadium complete with the largest center-hung video display board in college sports. That’s tangible improvement with tangible gains. But in a more concrete sense, the Pavilion is having a very real effect on recruiting.
Just a weeks ago, the Rebels’ 2017 basketball class was ranked 16th in the nation, our highest rated class ever. Days later, the Rebels signed Markell Crawford, a graduate transfer from Memphis who averaged 12.8 points per game last year.
Compared to other middling SEC basketball programs like LSU and Vanderbilt, the Pavilion sets us apart. It’s a competitive edge in the twisted, highly controversial world of high school basketball recruitment. Why waste four years playing basketball in Alabama’s sub-standard facility when you could star at the Pavilion?
The Ole Miss basketball program is trying. Our school is not an SEC bottom dweller when it comes to basketball, no that privilege is reserved for schools like Auburn, Tennessee and Missouri. But make no mistake, the Rebels can’t hold a candle to Florida or Kentucky.
But, then again, those are deeply committed basketball schools; they have no time for other sports.
Except for Florida, whose football team finished the 2016-2017 season on top of the SEC East. It can be done; schools can focus on more than one sport. The “Ole Miss is a football school” argument holds no weight here.
Now I’m also not saying anything short of an SEC Championship and NCAA Tournament finals appearance should disappoint Ole Miss fans, that’s pretty ambitious. But I would like to see our school jump into the next tier of SEC basketball. A tier occupied by teams like Arkansas and South Carolina; teams that make the NCAA Tournament most years and every-so-often challenge for the title (i.e. South Carolina this year). For me, that would be good enough.
What will it take to get there? Well, with a brand new facility and better-than-ever recruiting classes, the outlying variable seems to be the coaching staff. Andy Kennedy is the longest tenured coach in the SEC and for good reason: prior to his hiring, the Rebel basketball program suffered four consecutive losing seasons. During Andy Kennedy’s 11 seasons at the helm of Ole Miss’ ship, not a single season dropped below .500. Impressive? Sure. But good enough? No, not if those 11 seasons only led to two NCAA tournament appearances.
What needs to change if the Rebels are to elevate themselves into the next echelon of college basketball? The answer could be Kennedy’s job but I think that’s a little rash. Kennedy’s recruiting classes will continue to improve, but how much time should he get? Players need proper coaching and Kennedy’s seat could start heating up if his players underperform in the coming years.
If the Rebels do not make the tournament next year, it’s not the end of the world. But what about the next year? Or the next? The Ole Miss athletics department cannot remain complacent with mediocrity (and that’s exactly what Rebel basketball has been for years: mediocre).
The Pavilion represents a step in the right direction but college basketball is a competitive world ruled by aggressive programs. Until director Ross Bjork and the athletics department stop patting Rebel basketball on the back for passable seasons and ultimately disappointing post season finishes, the program won’t ever be “good enough.”