Grit, not flash, defined Rebels’ best ever
Ole Miss has been playing basketball for 108 seasons. Until 1997, it had one NCAA Tournament appearance to show for it. But since then, the Rebels have made seven tournament appearances. None of those teams accomplished more than Rod Barnes’ 2000-2001 Sweet 16 team did.
The Rebels participated in three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1997-1999 with the first two coming under Rob Evans and the last under Barnes. When Evans moved on to Arizona State after the 1998 season, Barnes—his top assistant and former Rebel great—was handed the keys to a recently successful program. Barnes sustained that success and proved in his first season as head coach that he was the man for the job. But that was just a prelude to what would be the best team in Ole Miss history.
Behind 6-foot-8, 255-pound senior center Rahim Lockhart’s 13.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, the 2000-2001 Rebels captured the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Western Division championship. Joining Lockhart as the only other player averaging double figures, explosive freshman forward Justin Reed chipped in 11.0 points per game. Reed earned Freshman All-American honors as well as the SEC Freshman of the Year award for his efforts.
Ole Miss did not rely on flashy play or an open-court, high-flying offense, but rather playing the gritty, hard-nosed defense that was a trademark of Barnes as a player and as a coach. The Rebels allowed just 64 points per game and stifled opponents with a bruising, physical style that overwhelmed many teams.
Lockhart, the center of the offense and defense according to Barnes, started all 35 games for the Rebels while shooting a higher percentage from the floor (55 percent) than the free throw line (47.8 percent). Lockhart’s lone weakness did not hurt the 2001 Ole Miss hoopsters, though, as they jumped out of the gates with 11 straight wins to open the season, including consecutive wins over Oklahoma, Kansas State and Memphis.
Entering SEC play with 12 wins against only one loss, the Rebels sputtered as they lost three of their first six conference games. But they finished with a flurry as they closed the regular season winning eight of their final 10 contests, including thrashing Alabama 105-71 in the final game of the season to clinch the Western Division.
Barnes’ team won two games in the SEC Tournament before falling to Kentucky in the championship game. With 25 wins, a division title, and an appearance in the SEC Tournament final on their résumé, the Rebels earned a program-best No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
They promptly disposed of Iona in the opening round before tackling Notre Dame in a second-round showdown. In a nip-and-tuck slugfest, 5’5” freshman guard Jason Harrison came off the bench to drain a 3-pointer with less than a minute to play to give the Rebels a two-point lead they would not relinquish in a 59-56 win.
Even though Lockhart led the way with 24 points, it was the diminutive Harrison that was the hero. Even Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was impressed with what Harrison was able to pull off for the Rebels.
“That’s a big-time shot from a kid who’s fearless,” Brey told the New York Post. “I told him after the game, ‘You’re a fearless young man; you’re a winner.’”
Harrison and his teammates made history as the victory gave Ole Miss its only Sweet 16 berth in program history. In the Sweet 16, the Rebels battled Arizona to the end before falling to the eventual national runner-up 66-56. But that disappointment faded quickly, overshadowed by the huge accomplishments garnered by Barnes’ third team as head coach in Oxford.
The 2000-2001 team’s 27 wins (against eight losses) still stands as the most in school history. The Rebels were ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press Poll, which is also a school-best final ranking. Barnes garnered National and SEC Coach of the Year honors, and Lockhart was named a third-team All-American.
“First, I would like to thank God for the opportunity we had to play basketball and represent the University this year,” Barnes said after the final AP Poll was released. “It was a magical season for everyone—coaches, players, and fans—associated with the basketball program and Ole Miss.
“This ranking is another big step for our program. We are building something special at Ole Miss, and we want it to continue for many years. This year’s team worked hard, and I am proud of them for what they accomplished.”
It was a storybook season for a program that did not have many in its history. A peek at the record books is all that is needed to realize what this team means to Ole Miss basketball. While the program has raised fans’ expectations over the last two decades, the 2000-2001 team is still the standard-bearer for each Ole Miss team that follows it. H&A
Cover photo: Former Ole Miss head coach Rod Barnes – Courtesy Ole Miss Athletics