Photos by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

By Billy Watkins

      No more excuses.

       Ole Miss has used up all of them in men’s basketball.

       We are living in an age when programs like Ole Miss, with no rich basketball history to speak of, have a better chance than ever to win big.              

       Here’s why: Gone are the days when prominent programs like Kentucky can recruit top-notch classes year after year and keep those players for three and four years. Today, many of the best players are one-and-done, maybe two-and done, and off to the NBA. That’s one of the reasons dynasties have become a thing of the past.

       The transfer portal has made it possible to go from bad to good in a hurry.

       And Ole Miss has certainly made a serious commitment to winning in men’s hoops. New coach Chris Beard, introduced March 13, has a starting salary of $3.25 million. That’s a lot of coins, but we’ve all become numb to the salary figures in sports these days.

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       His teams will play in a gorgeous $96.5 million arena, which opened in January 2016. It’s certainly fit for a national program.

       But now let’s address the rhinoceros in the room. Yes, Beard was fired at Texas the first week in January. He had been charged with strangling his fiancee’ Randi Trew in December. The charges were dropped in February, two months after the alleged incident.

       Trew released a statement on Dec. 23 in which she took the blame for the incident and said Beard was acting in self defense.

       Trew’s words weren’t enough for the Longhorns to keep Beard.

       I’ve had to search myself to realize how I feel about this hiring. That’s why I’m just now writing about it. And this is where I stand: Nobody really knows what happened that night except Beard and Trew. I do not know Chris Beard. Never met him. But I do know athletic director Keith Carter, who hired him.

       I have great respect for Carter. I trust his judgement. And that’s the one thing I do know concerning this situation. Also, Carter knows basketball — and he knows basketball at Ole Miss. He was an All-American player for the Rebels in the late 1990s.

       Beard, 50, has certainly been a popular hire among fans. They are convinced he will win big and they base it on these facts:

       *** In 2015-16, his one season at Arkansas-Little Rock, the Trojans went 30-5 and won the Sun Belt Conference. As a 12-seed, Beard’s squad beat fifth-seeded Purdue in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

       ***He took over at Texas Tech the following season, a program with one winning record in the previous six years. Beard’s first team won 18 games. His second won 27 and reached the Elite Eight. His third won 31 and lost in double overtime in the national championship game to Virginia.

       ***This season’s Longhorn team was 7-1 when Beard was suspended. It has won 28 games, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and meets Xavier this weekend in the Sweet Sixteen.

       He is said to be a relentless recruiter. His teams are known for tough defense and an offense that fits today’s fast-paced game.

       But we shall see if Ole Miss and Beard are the right combination.


       I wanted another opinion so I called one of the greatest players in Ole Miss history, John Stroud. I covered him for four years (1976-80). To this day, he had the quickest release I’ve ever seen. When he left Oxford, the 6-foot-7 Stroud had scored more points (2,328) than any player in SEC history except one dude — LSU’s legendary “Pistol Pete” Maravich. And that was before the three-point shot was introduced.

       The Rebels won 17 games and reached the NIT Stroud’s senior season. It is believed to be the program’s first postseason berth, though records 40 and 50 years before that are sketchy.

       Stroud was the fourth pick in the second round of the 1980 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets.

       And Stroud, a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, has been a successful coach. He’s best known for his 13 years at Division III Millsaps, which only played 24 games each season. He won 211 and three Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference titles.

       I told Stroud that I was beginning to think no coach could win big at Ole Miss in men’s basketball. Nine NCAA appearances since 1981 doesn’t provide much reason to believe.  

       “I think (Beard) can win there,” Stroud said. “He’s a household name in college basketball. He’s signed good players.He seems to be one of those guys who can get players, and then get the most out of them. From what I’ve heard and read, his players really like him. He has sort of a loosey-goosey style, but they play really hard on defense. It’s a good combination, a good system.”

       So what will be Beard’s immediate plan?

       “He has to identify Ole Miss’ needs — which is just about everything,” Stroud said. “He will have to hit the portal. His first year, he may have to go out and sign the best players he can find, regardless of position. You can worry about positions later.

       “He’s got to find shooters. With the shot clock, if you can’t make shots you’re in big trouble. And there are shooters out there. I think he needs to look harder at Mississippi. There are players who are being ignored. And if he has to, he could go to the Midwest where you can always find a couple of guys who can shoot the basketball. You see them every year in the NCAA Tournament.”

       Poor shooting teams aggravate Stroud. Of course, he made 57.8 and 55.7 percent of his shots his final two seasons in Oxford while averaging 26.3 and 25.2 points per game.

       Stroud worked TV for SEC+ for five Ole Miss games before Christmas.

       “I didn’t go back to a single game after that,” he said. “I knew how bad it was going to be.”

       It was tough for him to admit it and it was tough for me to hear it because the coach, Kermit Davis Jr. is a good man who loves Mississippi. His dad was head coach at Mississippi State and is a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

       But this year’s team ranked 280th in scoring (67.5 points per game).

       Davis delivered 20 wins and a berth in the tournament in the first of his five seasons. But that was about it. His last two teams won a combined six SEC games.

       “Ole Miss is ready to win,” Stroud said. “Look at football and what (head coach Lane) Kiffin has done. Look at the baseball team winning the national championship last season. Look at the women’s basketball team this year (headed to the Sweet Sixteen after knocking off No. 1 Stanford on the road Sunday night.) There is no reason Beard can’t win and win pretty quickly. I think he’ll win 20 games next year. I really believe he will.”