With a new coach and four new freshmen, the Ole Miss women’s basketball team is set to make a lot of noise in the Southeastern Conference this season.
Head coach Matt Insell, who had previously spent five seasons as an assistant coach at Kentucky, has a great vision for his team.
“The first thing I asked the girls was, ‘Do you really want this? Do you really want to win at the highest level?’” Insell said at his press conference Monday.
The Lady Rebels are extremely young this season, but they still return four of their top five scorers from a season ago, when the Rebels finished at a disappointing 9-20.
One bright spot for the Rebels this season is senior point guard Valencia McFarland, who has scored in every game she has suited up in for the Rebels.
“I wish I had her four more years, and she fits in perfectly with this team,” Insell said. “She is a luxury to have as a first year coach. I would go as far to say that she is the best point guard in the SEC, and the best point guard I have ever coached.”
One other important factor that Insell brings to the table is his recruiting ability. Widely known for recruiting and player development at Kentucky, Insell made it clear that he wants to protect the state of Mississippi and own the state when it comes to recruiting.
“Players grow up in the state of Mississippi wanting to be Ole Miss Rebels,” Insell said. “I don’t want to be playing against Mississippi girls. I want to be coaching them.”
Insell also has the ability to recruit not only in the United States, but also overseas. This season the Rebels have two new freshmen from out of the country. Shequila Johnson is a 6-foot-3 forward from London, England, while the other international player is 5-foot-8 guard Claudia Ortiz Ledesma from Carolina, Puerto Rico.
“I see Shaquila and Claudia both playing major roles over the next four years,” Insell said.
Insell added that both of these girls are not ready defensively because their club teams overseas mainly focused on the offensive side of the ball. Insell said they didn’t play a lot of man-to-man defense over the course of their careers, which is what Insell will mainly play this year.
Overall, Insell has already begun to change the culture of this program. Insell plays music in practice to motivate the girls. The players take only 90-second water breaks during practice, which is how long the women’s basketball TV timeouts are. He also put up banners of some of the past Rebel teams that had success in the SEC and in the NCAA Tournament.
“I want the girls to look around and see the successful teams that came through our programs,” he said. “Teams that included Peggie Gillom and coach Van Chancellor, who made 14 NCAA Tournament appearances as head coach here. I want our girls to have the mindset that it is our turn to create something special.”
As far as team chemistry goes, youth will be the key to success. Insell said he wants the girls to be sophomores by the time they play their first game.
“How fast will we put it together?,” Insell said. “We could win some games we are not supposed to win, and we could lose some games we are supposed to win. It’s all about sacrifice and commitment to one another and this university if we are going to become something special.”