By Gregg Ellis
OXFORD - Rod Barnes isn't ready to talk about predictions, possible Southeastern Conference titles and national rankings.
His focus as the fourth-year Ole Miss basketball coach is getting his team prepared to win as many games as possible.
And preparations for the 2001-02 season began last Saturday with two intense, physical practices.
The Rebels are coming off the most remarkable year in school history. They won a record 27 games, claimed the Western Division title and earned a trip to the Sweet 16.
"I'm excited to be back on the basketball floor," Barnes said. "Obviously we have a lot of questions for this year's basketball team. But we also have a lot of things to look forward to. It will be a challenge for us to repeat what we did last season."
The biggest question is how Ole Miss will fare without power forward Rahim Lockhart due to graduation. He was without doubt the heart and soul of last year's team and averaged 13 points and 8.1 rebounds, both team-highs. Lockhart was also the leader both on and off the court.
"We have major losses every year," Barnes said. "We've got to have kids step up. There's a lot of guys on our team that have been waiting for their opportunity."
And one of those players is point guard Jason Harrison, the lone senior on the team who averaged seven points last year and dished out 104 assists.
"Jason Harrison has taken that leadership role," Barnes said. "We try to allow our seniors to be leaders. They are the ones who have been here the longest and understand everything going on with our program on and off the court. And Jason Harrison has leadership capabilities. He's been a leader. He's just been waiting on his time to sit in the front seat. And now it's his time."
Another player Barnes can turn to is Justin Reed, the 2001 SEC Freshman of the Year.
His role is expected to increase, as is his game. Barnes said the sophomore from Jackson has become more vocal and his outside game, particularly the 3-point shot, has improved.
"Everyone's role has increased," Barnes said.
Reed, who played for Team USA in this year's World University Games, averaged 11 points and six rebounds last year.
He also knows the challenge of defending a title.
"I don't feel like we're wearing targets on jerseys, but we know we have to perform our best each night," he said. "Everyone wants what we had last year. We have to be on our toes and prepared for each a game."
The Rebels, who finished last season ranked No. 9 in the ESPN/USA Today's Coach's Poll and No. 14 by The Associated Press, also welcome five newcomers - freshmen Kendrick Fox (Oxford), Justin Johnson (Fayetteville, N.C.), Jonathan Loe (Memphis, Tenn.), Chris Rhodes (Stafford, Texas) and Spence Shutt (Savannah, Tenn.). In addition, Derrick Allen, who is expected to see a lot of time inside, is a junior who was redshirted last season.
Ole Miss opens its exhibition season at 7 p.m. Nov. 3 at home against Global Basketball. The Rebels' regular-season debut is Nov. 15 against Bowling Green in the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Rebels' home opener is Nov. 19 against Morris Brown.
Like the men, the Lady Rebels have a big void to replace - guard Becky Myatt, who started 117 games and scored 1,193 points during his career.
"It's going to be hard. She really can't be replaced," coach Ron Aldy said. "She brought so much to the table and did so many different things."
The Lady Rebels do have four seniors returning in Saundra Jackson, Von Kirk, TaShondrea Moton and Sherika Wright.
Aldy, who is entering his fifth year, said he expects Wright, a point guard, to provide a bulk of the scoring. He also noted the teams' No. 1 goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, Ole Miss finished 17-14 and was eliminated in the first round of the WNIT.
"We have a lot of veterans who are seasoned players," he said. "Hopefully, we can figure into the middle standings in the SEC."
The Lady Rebels begin play Nov. 7 against the Basketball Travelers in exhibition action. Their opener is Nov. 16 at Tennessee Tech, and their first game at home is Nov. 19 against Murray State.