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Rebels expect to be NCAA tourney team

When Matt Insell interviewed to be Ole Miss’ women’s basketball coach three years ago, he told athletics director Ross Bjork the plan was to have a middling program back in the NCAA Tournament in four years.

But Insell has the hit the fast-forward button on the Rebels’ rebuilding job.

“This team has set itself up now that we’re excited about Year 3 and thinking in Year 3, we’ll have a chance,” Insell said.

Ole Miss was picked to finish sixth in the Southeastern Conference for the 2015-16 season by media members last week, a sign of just how far Insell has brought the program after being pegged to finish last the previous two seasons. Ole Miss won 19 games a season ago and advanced to the third round of the WNIT after logging just nine wins the year before Insell was hired.

Now anything other than being one of the 64 teams to get a shot at playing for a national championship come March would be a disappointment.

“We feel like we have a team that can make the NCAA Tournament,” Insell said. “That’s something that we’re shooting for. We will be upset if we don’t.”

Ole Miss has three starters returning in guards Erika Sisk, A’Queen Hayes and Shandricka Sessom, but the Rebels have perhaps the biggest void of any team in the league to fill with the graduation of All-SEC forward Tia Faleru, who nearly averaged a double-double last season (14.6 points, 9.8 rebounds) and finished fifth all-time in program history in that category by the time she was done.

Insell has often had his players go up against what he referred to as “practice guys” to try to get his remaining post players ready for the physicality they’ll need on the boards in one of the more competitive conferences in the nation. Sophomores Kelsey Briggs and Bretta Hart, junior Shequila Joseph and freshman Cecilia Muhate Pena will try to collectively pick up the rebounding slack.

“As far as replacing Tia on the boards, I feel real good with where we’re at with our post players,” Insell said. “A lot better than I thought I would at this time.”

The Rebels also have to replace the 3-point acumen of Gracie Frizzell and the dirty work of Danielle McCray while navigating a conference schedule that features 10 games against teams that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament, including two against national semifinalist South Carolina, with a roster that includes nine freshmen and sophomores.

“Our schedule doesn’t set up real well for a young team when you talk about the SEC,” Insell said. “That’s something that we really have to push hard to get better and get ready for that because with what our league schedule is now, you can be a 6-10 team that could get in the NCAA Tournament because our league schedule is so tough.”

But Insell believes the incoming talent is good enough to help offset some of that inexperience. The stroke of freshmen Torri Lewis and Mudinah Muhammad, a top-100 national recruit Insell plucked out of Chicago, will help the Rebels have “four, at times five” shooters in the game at once, Insell said.

“We’re young, but everybody’s experienced,” Hayes said. “Hopefully we just need everybody to come in and do their job. Play as a team, work hard in every practice, and it will roll over in time for the game.”

Said Insell, “Our youth is not going to be an excuse.”

The Rebels host Christian Brothers in an exhibition Nov. 6. They open the season Nov. 13 at C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum against Mississippi Valley State and will try to end it with an NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since 2007.

“It’s definitely possible,” Sisk said.