When Mississippi coach Rob Evans promised fans at last season's Midnight Madness that the Rebels would win the SEC Western Division, "people looked at me like I was nuts," he says. After Ole Miss made good on that promise—and won 20 games for the first time since the 1937-38 season, broke into the Top 25 for the first time in history and earned its first NCAA bid in 16 years—Rebels fans eagerly looked to Evans for another crazy prediction this year. SEC title? Sweet 16? But Evans promised nothing. "Last year the pressure on these guys was incredible," says Evans. "They were trying to do things that had never been done here before. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on them again. This year, we just want to enjoy this team."
What's not to enjoy? Mississippi has beaten nine of 10 nonconference opponents, including Temple and Louisville, and last Saturday, in a matchup of the SEC's defending division champions at Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford, Ole Miss rode roughshod over 11th-ranked South Carolina, which had handed the Rebels their worst loss of the season last year. Behind junior guard Keith Carter's 26 points and a nagging man-to-man defense that resulted in the Gamecocks' highest number of turnovers (24) and fewest points this season, Mississippi exacted revenge with a 73-54 victory that brought its record to 10-1 and its national ranking to No. 14 in the AP poll. The near-sellout crowd of 8,033 enjoyed every raucous minute of it.
Indeed, Ole Miss basketball fans, a species that was so scarce just a few years ago that Rebels players could walk the streets of Oxford without being recognized, are suddenly among the most rabid in the conference. On Nov. 22, a day on which Mississippi hosted Georgia in football and Temple in basketball, tickets to the afternoon football game were scalped for $10, while those to the evening's basketball game at the Tad Pad went for 10 times as much.
That enthusiasm is a credit to Evans, who has assembled an exciting, hard-nosed team that is notoriously aggressive on both ends of the court. "Ole Miss has the best man-to-man defense in the league," says Gamecocks point guard Melvin Watson. "They will expose how tough you really are."
Evans should be pleased to hear that, because a player's toughness is something he probes regularly, especially through his much-despised Five and Five Club, the five-mile run at 5 a.m. that a player must complete every time he misses a class, tutoring session or treatment—or forgets to stop by Evans's office for a daily chat. "If a player misses class, I set up a tutoring session for him during practice," says Evans, "and if he doesn't practice, he doesn't play." Needless to say, the Rebels don't blow off class, or Evans, very often.
It helps that when it comes to being strong in the face of temptation, Evans practices what he preaches. Last spring he turned down a lucrative offer to coach at LSU so he could stick with the program he began to build six years ago against long odds and rampant skepticism. "Two of the main reasons I stayed were [seniors] Ansu Sesay and Joezon Darby," says Evans. "I had told them we could do something special here, and I felt a responsibility to see that through."
Sesay, a 6'9" forward and an All-America candidate from Houston who led the Rebels with a 17.7-point average at week's end, was Evans's most important recruit as well as one of the most difficult to reel in. Sesay was discouraged from going to Oxford by family and friends who felt the Ole Miss campus would be an uncomfortable place for a black player. But Evans, whose son, Damon, had been the first black to pledge the Sigma Chi fraternity at Mississippi, in 1992, convinced Sesay he would thrive in Oxford. "The first two years were rough because I wasn't used to losing so much," says Sesay, who endured a 20-34 record those two seasons. "I wanted to go home every single day. But winning takes care of everything."
Billy Ball Is Back
Let others wring their hands over the demise of sportsmanship; when Texas Christian coach Billy Tubbs saw that Long Island had beaten Medgar Evers College by a record margin, 179-62, on Nov. 26, his first thought was "We need to break that."
By using the same approach that earned Oklahoma a Final Four berth when Tubbs coached there in 1988—a 40-minute press executed by gunslingers plucked from the juco ranks—the Horned Frogs have taken their shots at LIU's mark. Though the Frogs have fallen to Kansas and Syracuse, their only two ranked opponents so far, and to undefeated Oklahoma State, they were 11-3 through Sunday and averaging 104.8 points per game, tops in the NCAA (and good enough to be second in the NBA, for that matter, behind only the L.A. Lakers).