The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Coach Yo: NCAA Tournament Or Bust For Ole Miss

31 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC Staff

You barely miss the NCAA Tournament, make a run to the WNIT Championship Game and return seven of your top eight scorers, you're going to face expectations of an even greater encore. As she heads into her fourth season as the Ole Miss head coach, Yolett McPhee-McCuin - affectionately known as Coach Yo - embraces those expectations.

"Come on," she said at her preseason-opening press conference. "Everyone understands, and we've put it out there: It's NCAA Tournament or bust, as far as I'm concerned. And that's what we preach to the team, and that's what we expect. Pressure is a privilege."

A bold statement from the coach of a program that hasn't reached the NCAA Tournament since 2007, but outsiders have noticed the marked improvement. A year after going winless in the SEC, the Rebels finished 15-12 overall and 4-10 in the conference with three top-25 wins. They advanced to the SEC Tournament quarterfinals for the first time since 2010.

With seven of the top eight scorers returning, it's no surprise the SEC women's coaches picked Ole Miss to finish sixth in the league in their preseason poll. It's the highest the Rebels have been selected in that poll since it began in 2007-08. That was the season following the program's spirited run to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight.

The Rebels have not been back to the Big Dance since, but they gained valuable postseason experience last year as they reached the WNIT final.

"For us, I don't know how to script it better," McPhee-McCuin said. "It was almost perfect. The icing on the cake would have been us winning the whole thing, just for our players to hoist up a trophy, nothing else. We weren't going to go out and brag that we won the WNIT to the recruits we're in the mix with.

"So to me, mission accomplished. I thought we got the experience, they got the exposure, we dealt with adversity with me being out with COVID for the first three games and them showing the maturity to figure it out. They looked like a well-oiled machine."

Welcome back to the machine, which includes first-team All-SEC selection and honorable mention All-American Shakira Austin, last year's college player of the year in Mississippi, and reigning SEC freshman of the year Madison Scott, the first McDonald's All-American in the history of Ole Miss basketball, women or men.

The 6-foot-5 Austin made an immediate impact in her first season after transferring from Maryland, where she helped the Terps win two Big Ten regular-season championships and one Big Ten Tournament title. Last season, she became the first All-SEC first-team player from Ole Miss in six years as she averaged 18.6 points and 9.1 rebounds.

"I don't think anyone is questioning her talent anymore," McPhee-McCuin said. "Now, if she wants to go No. 1 or top-three (in the next WNBA Draft), we need to win. She needs to be a part of that."

Winning is now the expectation for the Rebels, inside and outside the program.

"This is Year Four, and Year Four is the year of stability," McPhee-McCuin said. "Last year was proof of concept. This year is to show that we're going to be around for a long time, and hopefully you see that when you see us play."