Barnes: Rebels ready to make run at national title

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 8, 2002

[05/08/02]Last season, Rod Barnes made a test run to the Final Four with his good friend, Indiana coach Mike Davis.

This season, he’s talking about going back. Only this time, he wants it to be a business trip with his Ole Miss Rebels.

“I know what to expect … how to act now,” Barnes told more than 100 area Ole Miss supporters at Maxwell’s Restaurant Tuesday night. “Now I can act like I’ve been there before.”

His bold talk is based on more than just blind optimism, though.

With four starters returning from last season’s 20-11 squad, Barnes believes he’s got the team to make a run at the national championship.

“We’ve got 12 players coming back, and they’ve been through this league together,” Barnes said before his speech. “That’s really rare. We’ve got a chance to have a really special year.

“Night in and night out, this should be the best basketball team we’ve had since I’ve been there.”

The Rebels made a surprise run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2001 and have made it to the Big Dance five of his six years as head coach.

“As time goes on, I think we will make it to the Final Four,” he said, noting that this would be a good season to do it since it will be in New Orleans in 2003. “I want to win a national championship.”

That’s the same goal he set when he replaced Rob Evans as head coach in 1998.

Barnes proved that Ole Miss could get national recognition in basketball when he was voted Naismith Coach of the Year in 2001.

“It’s done a lot for me personally, but it’s done a lot for our program, too,” he said, adding that he can’t believe his name is on a list that includes John Chaney, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight. “It gives us credibility.”

It brought him a longterm contract, more speaking engagements and better recruits all of which create higher expectations.

That’s OK with Barnes.

“I want the pressure,” he said. “I like the expectations.”

Barnes welcomes the doubters, too.

They’ve helped fuel him since he was a budding guard in tiny Satartia in Yazoo County.

“People said I was never going to play in junior high … in high school … and at Ole Miss,” he said. “A lot of people probably laughed when I said I wanted to win a national championship, too.”

Replacing point guard Jason Harrison will be Barnes’ biggest challenge this season. Signees Trey Pearson and Brian Brown could vie for the position, or he’ll just use Emmanuel Wade and David Sanders “and take the point’ out of it,” Barnes said.

“Last year, we had a lot of questions,” he said. “This year, we have fewer questions and more possibilities of answers.”

Junior post player Justin Reed will still be the center of attention, he said.

Barnes didn’t have an opinion on the saga of Mississippi State’s Mario Austin, who said he would stay in school, then said he’d go for the NBA draft, then returned to MSU all in the span of about two weeks.

“I’m just concerned with us, and retaining our kids,” he said, referring to Reed, who is considered the top recruit in Rebels’ history. “I’m focused on our team.”

Barnes had experience with being recruited before he ever made it to high school.

He remembers just before his freshman year, when then-ninth-grade coach Donny Fuller was trying to get him to come to Warren Central.

“I had some strong talks about doing that,” said Barnes, who grew up “just a few hundred yards” across the Warren County line.

“Warren Central seemed like big-time athletics to me. They had more players on their bench than we had on our team.”

Barnes was all set to live in Vicksburg with his uncle and aunt, John and Nora Sims, before finally opting to go to Bentonia High, where he was all-state three years.

Barnes said everything seems to be in place for Ole Miss to be successful in basketball, as well as football and baseball, with Pete Boone back as athletic director. He was announced as John Shafer’s replacement on Monday.

“A lot of the success we’re experiencing now, Pete Boone is responsible for,” he said. “He took us through a tough situation before.

“This time, he’s stepping into a much better situation.”

The District 9 (Warren, Claiborne, Issaquena, Sharkey counties) alumni handed out three $500 scholarships to local Ole Miss-bound students.

Vicksburg High soccer star Neely Nasif, St. Aloysius tennis player Patrick Coomes and Warren Central band member Amy Jackson all received scholarships.