A person could stumble and fall over the number of storylines snaking through tonight’s WNIT game between Middle Tennessee and Ole Miss, but these teams have made a habit of standing tall all season.
The teams will square off in tonight’s Round 3 at Middle Tennessee; the host Blue Raiders (23-9) already have made their deepest postseason run in program history, while the Rebels (19-13) are resolutely making progress in the brutal SEC and could be the first Ole Miss team since 2006-07 to win 20 games.
When these teams faced off in November, it marked the first time a father (Rick Insell, MTSU) and a son (Matt Insell, Ole Miss) had ever coached against each other in a women’s D-1 game; the Blue Raiders prevailed that time, and tonight’s game adds the complicating flavor of postseason pressure on the unique matchup.
And lastly, Rick’s mother and Matt’s grandmother has been working through some significant health problems – concerns about her condition have understandably been primary for the coaches.
So, somewhere in all that, a game will take place in front of about 3,000 fans, with both teams hoping to cement 2014-15 as a defining campaign in program history.
“We’re in Year 2 of a process I thought would take four years, in terms of getting back to the postseason from where we started,” said Matt, whose team eased past UT Martin and Georgia Tech to reach Round 3. “Because of violations from the previous staff, two years ago we couldn’t even play in the SEC tournament. We had seven newcomers; half the roster didn’t know each other at one point. No doubt, we are enjoying it 100 percent. Nine of the top 11 return next year -- a lot of great things are happening for this team, and whatever happens (tonight), we’ll take momentum into the spring and summer and into next season.”
“One positive thing for us is, regardless of tonight’s result, all but one of our players are coming back, and we’ve got a good recruiting class,” said Rick, who sits No. 5 on the active coaches winning percentage list and saw his team beat Ball State and Arkansas State in the WNIT. “We lost six seniors and four starters from last year, and I knew leadership might be lacking and we’d be a little immature. But what I see now are freshmen and sophomores making plays, and doing what they need to in practice.”
Middle Tennessee won the November matchup, 71-65, and both coaches walked away thinking the experience was positive, even if they barely thought about it while the game actually took place.
“There are two different things in that. Playing against my Dad was very special, but you’ve got plenty to worry about just with your own team,” Matt said. “For this second go-round, it’s more exciting. There are a lot of friends and family down there who have not seen us play. These are people that text me whenever they see us playing a big game in the SEC, and now they’ll get to see us in person.
“I take a lot of pride in what Matt has done. We’re a close family,” Rick added. “But when that game started, we were both coaching. We’re both competitive. I didn’t think about (father versus son) during the game, but before and after, I have to say it was pretty neat.”
Typically, Matt and Rick will chat about how their teams look on a weekly basis, but it’s all radio silence for this contest. The Blue Raiders are somewhat unique in women’s basketball, a young team that has more assists than turnovers; both teams have bright futures and should be a handful next season as well.
The good things that await, and the weight of concern about a family member fallen ill, make tonight’s game a little tricky to predict.
“When the season is over, we won’t talk basketball at all. We’re going to the racetrack to watch thoroughbred racing – that’s something we both love,” Matt said. “We’ve talked about this game, and how one of us plays another game, and the other heads to the racetrack.
“I’ve kept it light with this team in the postseason. The worst thing you can have is a mad team, miserable and not wanting to play. We said we don’t have anything better to be doing, so we might as well play.”
“This has been a tough week for the whole family with Mom in the hospital. Her passion for basketball has been passed through us,” Rick said. “The home game she missed last week was the first time she’d missed since I’ve been here, and that’s 10 years now. It’s a shame she can’t be here for this one, but at least she’s feeling better.”
And that's no small victory for a father and son.