HED:Evans has brought basketball fever to Oxford
By Gene Phelps
KANSAS CITY, Mo. Poll any Ole Miss fan today and they'll tell you they would rather see the Rebels battling Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl than watch the Rebels play Temple in the NCAA Tournament.
With the exception of Kentucky, the poll results would likely be the same at any other SEC school. In the South, college football is king. Basketball just gives the fans something to cheer about until spring football begins.
This was especially true at Ole Miss, until this season. Coach Rob Evans and his staff actually put a basketball team on the Tad Smith Coliseum court that got the fans excited. At Ole Miss, for the first time that I can remember, there was January and February Madness in Oxford. Usually, by the time March rolled around, Ole Miss basketball fans were just plain mad.
"Hey, when's spring practice starting?"
After an 8-2 pre-SEC showing, which included a near loss to Portland State, which hadn't had a program in 10 years, and a close loss to WAC power New Mexico in the Lobo Invitational, the Rebels started their successful run Jan. 22 in Fayetteville, Ark., when they stunned No. 22 Arkansas 91-74 at Bud Walton Arena.
It continued with a follow-up win at home over Georgia, and continued a week later when the Rebels knocked off No. 3 Kentucky 73-69 in front of "Dicky V" baby and a national TV (ABC) audience.
The team made a first appearance in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, going in at No. 20 following the upset of UK. Although the visit was short, just one week thanks to losses at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, the nation was beginning to hear about the Rebels.
With their backs against the wall following a road loss to Alabama in mid-February, the Rebels cruised to four consecutive victories to clinch the SEC Western Division title, the program's first SEC regular season championship.
The team entered the SEC Tournament in Memphis as a top seed and defeated Vandy on a last-second shot by Joezon Darby to reach the 20-win milestone for the first time since 1938.
"I think we felt like we had the talent to do what we did win the West and make the tournament," Ole Miss sophomore guard Keith Carter said. "You can go all the way back to Midnight Madness when Coach Evans said we could win the West if people got behind us.
"It was something we believed we could do, but I don't know if there were a lot of others who did. It was a great year for us."
Junior forward Anthony Boone says this year's success actually started late last season when Ole Miss won seven straight home games. Included in that total was a win over rival Mississippi State, which won the West, won the SEC Tournament and went to the Final Four.
"When we made that run and won a few games, we gained some confidence," Boone said. "We lost some seniors, but they didn't play as much as the younger players. We matured a little bit during that stretch, and we matured even more this season."
Now the football school has got to figure out what it needs to do to keep its basketball coach, who is reportedly being courted by other programs. When asked what his job plans were following the Rebels' 62-40 loss to Temple Friday, Evans would only say he wanted some time to relax and ponder his options.
"Ole Miss really didn't have a basketball tradition," All-SEC forward Ansu Sesay said. "Coach Evans has done a real good job here. Now, we've got to try to keep him here."
Gene Phelps is sports editor for the Daily Journal.