[ED: Frontpag'd fanpost with my annotations! -GoJC]
I am a professional sports handicapper and this year I have been a fervent supporter of the Ole Miss basketball team. Coming into this year I was really excited at this talented, under-the-radar squad that I knew was going to be much, much better than people thought. This is a team I had pegged as one of the surprise teams in the country and I was ready to make a killing betting on them.
That said, after watching that debacle of a Vanderbilt game I have to admit: I was wrong.
That was an NIT performance from the Rebels on Thursday night and it was an indictment of the whole program from the top down. Yes, I'm a little salty because of the loot I lost on the game. But it's more than that. Again, I'm not an Ole Miss guy but this is a team that I've followed closely for years and this was the year that I thought they were set to break back through onto the national scene. Now they are squarely on the outside of the NCAA tournament looking in and it should have been so different after this Vandy game. A game that this team had to have, and so easily could have, in order to set themselves up for something meaningful in March.
Tough to know where to start so we'll work on the periphery:
1) The fans.
You've got to be kidding me.
This was the most important game of Ole Miss's season. They had absolutely EVERYTHING riding on this game. A win over a nationally ranked team would have all but punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament and given them a ton of momentum heading into the stretch run. I mean, you have a Top 20 team, in your gym, in the biggest game of the year, and THAT was the best fan support you guys could muster? What a joke. I mean, there was zero home court edge. There was no energy. There was no vibe. There was no lift from the crowd. There was no way that the home fans could just will their team to a crucial win. THE PLACE WAS HALF EMPTY. It was embarrassed. Again, this was not my alma mater but I was embarrassed for them. I mean, someone turn on the Marquette-Pitt game right now. Now THAT is basketball. And that is home court. Mississippi fans should be embarrassed. I mean, let's not pretend that there is that much to do in Oxford on a Thursday night. SEC may have college football but games/crowds like last night are why they will always be second-rate and kind of a joke in basketball.
[Ole Miss fans are some of the most fickle, fairweather fans out there. It's a problem all of our sports teams deal with. I hate our fans for it, I really do. And, for a small town, there's plenty to do in Oxford on a Thursday night. Remember, Ole Miss is consistently rated as one of America's top party schools; it's not a boring place. I'm not saying this fact justifies our poor fan support, but your snide "let's not pretend that there is that much to do in Oxford on a Thursday night" will not go unchecked.]
2) The coach.
I like Andy Kennedy. Think he is a very good coach. And I'm not blaming him for the loss. I'm not. I mean, he can't make the guys make free throws. I get that. But I also have to say that he made some crucial errors that really cost his team. And beyond that it really didn't look like he had much control over them. I mean, they played flat through a good portion of that game and (with the exception of Chris Warren, who is a warrior) they mailed it in in the last three minutes.
As for the tactical errors, he stayed in that press way, way, way too long. The press was moderately successful early in forcing some tempo. But Vanderbilt was not bothered by it AT ALL in the second half. And they shouldn't be. They are a guard-heavy team and they always have at least three guys that are comfortable bringing the ball up the court. By staying in that press Kennedy gave up numerous fast breaks to Vandy and in key times - like the last eight minutes - the Commodores just had to execute a 3-on-1 or 2-on-1 to get a bucket instead of having to work their halfcourt offense (which they weren't that successful with most of the night). I just don't understand why Kennedy didn't see that and he made absolutely zero adjustments. That press killed them in the second half and it really killed Ole Miss's chances of generating momentum on the defensive end. Because even when Vandy didn't get a layup or a close shot after breaking the press the Rebels were so confused defensively that it led to breakdowns.
[I can agree, especially with your first part. Kennedy has done a great job recruiting athletic, talented-ish players to ball at Ole Miss and has certainly done a better job at than most Ole MIss coaches. However, he doesn't instill a will to win in them a la Houston Nutt for our football team. It's a real problem but, being as how he's still a very new head coach, I hope this is something he will learn.]
3) The team.
Lots to get to here, so let's go rapid fire:
- Leadership. This team has none of it. This team desperately needs someone to become a vocal, energized leader. They have as much physical talent and they have all of the tools to be a Sweet 16-caliber team. That's no joke. But without any leadership they will be relegated to teh bottom of the lowly SEC West. I love Warren's game. But being good and hitting clutch shots isn't enough. You need to take this team by the throat and drag them to success, whether they want to go there or not. That's what Sherron Collins does. That's what Robbie Hummel does. That's what big time players do. Warren has the ability. Now he needs to do more.
- Passion. Where was it? Again, this was the biggest game of their season and after a strong start to the game it was as if this team was on cruise control. Apparently they don't mind the NIT.
[I think these two points go back to your original point on coaching.]
- Free throws. I mean, you have got to be joking. They were 9-for-17 and they missed the front end of THREE one-and-ones. So really they converted nine of a potential 20 free throw chances. That's what NIT teams do.
[We haven't had consistent free throw shooting in a while.]
- Rebounding. They held their own on the boards, only getting outrebounded by six. But they should. [They should what?] They have four strong frontcourt players and a ton of athletes. But there were THREE TIMES, in absolutely crucial situations, where they got a defensive stop but Vandy got an offensive rebound. And twice that rebound was picked up, after a bounce, out near the three-point line. Up 55-54 with seven minutes they allowed the 3-point shooter to get his own rebound and Vandy hit the next three to take a 57-54 lead. With just under four minutes left Ole Miss was down 3 and allowed another guard to get a long rebound. That led to a dunk and a 5-point deficit. Then down 5 with under two minutes the Dores missed both free throws, leaving the door wide open. Ogilvy got the offensive rebound and it led to 20 critical seconds running off and two more free throws. Those were three of the most important plays of the game.
[This frustrates me too on all levels of ball. I hate poor rebounding. However, AJ Ogilvy still exists and played for Vanderbilt last night. I know it's a weak excuse, but they did have one of the conference's best big men underneath the rim.]
And that all goes back to passion. If they really wanted this game it was there for the taking. But Ole Miss just kind of slept-walked through the second half and didn't make the plays that winning teams do. If you want to make it to the Big Dance you have to go out there and TAKE IT. They did not. And now they could be watching the No. 4 team from the Atlantic 10 playing in March Madness while Ole Miss is on the couch.
- Execution. Vanderbilt did it, Ole Miss did not. Blame it on coaching. Blame it on players. Blame it on whatever you want. But the bottom line is that the difference between being really good and mediocre is razor thin at this time of year and this level. And if you can't execute in the last five minutes you can't be a good team.
- Eniel Polynice - what are you doing? This guy was a mess last night. Nothing really more to say.
- Terrico White. I think this guy is one of the best players in the SEC. But I had to go online and check the boxscore at halftime to see if he was playing and was wondering if he was hurt. This, again, goes to leadership. This guy has to assert himself from start to finish in every game. He needs to establish himself as one of the best players on the floor in every game that he plays. Until he does that he'll just be a good player on a mediocre team.
[We've been saying this for a while now. Wake up, Terrico, we'd all love for you to join us during this thing we call "basketball season."]
- Ole Miss big men. No.1 - stop shooting jumpers. [I think this is a coaching thing] No. 2 - man the eff up. [For real.] The four forwards comprise a very solid group. And they could be exceptional. But you can't let an Aussie doughboy like A.J. Ogilvy push you around all night. And that's what he did. Ogilvy took more than one cheap shot and made several chippy plays. What did the Rebs do to answer? Nada. That can't happen and they needed to establish that this was their house.
So that's that. That was the worst loss of the season for this team. It was worse than folding against MSU and worse than losing to Arkansas, in my opinion. Vandy wanted nothing to do with this game. They were looking ahead to Kentucky and would have folded if they were pressured. But they weren't. Most important game to date for Ole Miss (did they not understand that if they had just won this game and avoided a collapse they would be playing in the NCAA Tournament?) and they had nothing.
I am not writing this team off. Maybe I'm stubborn. Maybe I'm still too attached to my original assessment. But I still think that they have a good shot at meaningful March play. I do a projections article every Friday at Doc's Sports.com. And while I will bump the Rebs down to a Level 2 bubble team (on the fringe) I am not writing them off. That Kansas State win still holds some weight. But in order to do that the Rebels need to probably win out. They at least need to win their next four and maybe could endure a loss at Arkansas. But Ole Miss should be favored over Florida, Auburn and maybe even at Alabama (which I think will be the toughest game). And they should kill LSU. If they can do that and then win at least one game in the SEC tournament (preferably over one of the Big 3 teams in the conference or Miss. State) and I think that they could still find their way in.
But because of a shoddy all-around effort tonight this team is in desperation mode. We saw how they responded to that position tonight - by rolling over. Will they do the same with the rest of their season?
[Thanks. Great points and observations. Stick around, will ya? We could use you in comments threads and such.]