When Rob Evans took over as Mississippi coach five years ago, he inherited a little office that had bare cinder-block walls. He spruced up the place with navy wallpaper, a huge wooden bookcase and a leather couch. This season he's taking the next step: He's moving to more spacious digs, part of a new suite of basketball offices being built at Tad Smith Coliseum.
The Ole Miss program has undergone a similar upgrade during Evans's tenure. Back in the bare-walls days, the Rebels struggled against Division II teams like Abilene Christian and Oakland University. Last season they went 20-9, surfaced in the Top 25 for the first time, beat Kentucky for the first time in seven years, won the Southeastern Conference's Western Division and got an NCAA tournament bid. Evans has all five starters back and only one significant concern: finding enough playing time for his subs. "For so long around here, basketball season came and everything was negative," Evans says. "This year people have talked about basketball all summer and all fall. It's what I envisioned when I came here."
The player most responsible for the upswing? A man named Su. Ansu Sesay (pronounced ANN-sue SEE-say) is his full name, but Su is what his teammates call him and what you'll hear Rebel fans howling at games. "Not only is he a great athlete, he's also a great listener and learner," Evans says of the 6'9" forward from Houston.
Last season, as a junior, Sesay was named first-team All-SEC after averaging 14.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He ranked among the top 10 in the league in four categories. "He's a leader, a hard worker, unselfish, a people person," says clutch-shooting senior sixth man Joezon Darby. "He's really been a brother to me."
Evans fosters that family feeling. He requires each player to stop by his little office daily, just to chat. Sometimes it's a one-on-one discussion about girlfriend troubles; at other times there are 10 players shooting the breeze in Evans's cramped quarters. (This is where the new, larger office will really come in handy.) The players got even closer in May when they spent 11 days touring Australia, winning all five of their games against Aussie club teams. "If you don't have a close bond, I don't think you can call yourselves a team," Sesay says. "You really wouldn't be getting anything out of it, except just basketball."
The Rebels had grown so tight by the end of last season that Evans turned down a more lucrative job offer from Louisiana State because he couldn't bear to leave his players. "We had asked them for their loyalty," Evans says, "and for me to leave them at that time in their lives for more money would have been phony."
Instead he'll start his sixth season in Oxford with a team that's for real.