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Ole Miss basketball is still figuring out its identity, but the problems are fixable

Finished with the bulk of the non-conference schedule, Andy Kennedy’s squad has shown both bright spots and glaring issues to address.

NCAA Basketball: Memphis at Mississippi Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

The Rebels currently sit at 6-3, with all three losses coming at the hands of teams ranging from respectable to decidedly good. It’s tempting to shrug off the season’s start as on par with whatever we’ve decided to be the standard for Ole Miss basketball. However, it’s not encouraging to see that they’re last among SEC teams in average point differential (+1.0).

It’s generally accepted by those paying attention that Andy Kennedy has a way of delivering teams that are greater than the sum of their parts, but there’s still a process for effectively deploying talent that hasn’t quite come to fruition this season. The team so far is lacking the non-conference resume win that may prove crucial in making the NCAA Tournament.

The Rebels carry many of the same features as previous Kennedy squads, such as an up-tempo, (at times) potent offensive attack, but the disappointments may be more within their control than in years past.

The defense has plenty of room for improvement.

The Basketbears are currently dead last in the SEC in adjusted defensive rating, and are the only team in the conference giving up more than a point per possession. Much of this can be attributed to defending the three, as they’re allowing the third highest shooting percentage (42.7 percent) from beyond the arc out of the 351 Division 1 basketball teams in existence.

Opponents have been quick to recognize the Rebels’ weakness here, using three-pointers to make up 40 percent of their overall points against Ole Miss. Sometimes it was even more extreme than that, as 48 of Creighton’s 86 points came from downtown.

Whether or not it’s the other team’s specialty, they morph into high-volume deep shooters when facing the Rebels. In terms of field goal percentage from three, every team but Virginia Tech has outperformed their season average when playing Ole Miss.

The Rebels’ intent to push the pace has a way of backfiring, as opponents have shot an even better 44.2 percent from three when in transition. One sign of encouragement is that the defense is actually pretty solid at defending shots from all other parts of the floor. Here’s a breakdown of how well Ole Miss defends different shots.

Stat Ole Miss National Average
Stat Ole Miss National Average
FG% at rim 53.10% 58.80%
FG% 2-point jumpers 31.50% 35.50%
FG% from 3 42.70% 34.30%
Transition eFG% 60.10% 53.40%

Much has already been said about this group’s lack of defensive cohesion, and it’s not uncommon for a team with little experience playing together to over-help and bend easily in a zone scheme. It’s entirely possible that the early defensive shortcomings may correct themselves as more time together accumulates, and opposing offenses will need to rely on a more even shot distribution.

When it comes to improving in transition defense, more consistency on offense could lead to fewer opportunities for the other team to capitalize on mistakes.

The offense needs a more sustainable formula.

On the other end of the floor, Ole Miss is averaging 1.1 points per possession, behind only Kentucky, Florida, and Arkansas in the SEC. The shot breakdown shows a less extreme version of the team’s defensive woes.

Stat Ole Miss National Average
Stat Ole Miss National Average
FG% at rim 54.60% 60.55%
FG% 2-point jumpers 34.40% 36.40%
FG% from 3 38.00% 35.00%
Transition eFG% 52.70% 56.00%

The past two seasons of Ole Miss basketball featured fairly short-circuited offenses led by Stefan Moody, but thanks to a few key transfers, a more even scoring distribution has become a more realistic goal for 2017. In 2016, Moody produced 29.3 percent of the team’s points, followed by Tomasz Gielo and Sebastian Saiz at 12.3 percent apiece. This year, Deandre Burnett, Saiz, and Cullen Neal lead the team at 23, 17, and 15 percent, respectively.

Even so, ball movement isn’t quite where it needs to be, as more than half of the team’s field goals are unassisted. Again, some of this can be attributed to not having played together for very long, but another cause is the guards unsuccessfully driving to the basket in isolation too often. While leading the team in overall scoring, Burnett is converting threes at a higher rate than when he’s closer to the rim, and it’s becoming a bit clearer how that’s possible.

Player % of shots at rim FG% at rim % assisted at rim
Player % of shots at rim FG% at rim % assisted at rim
Deandre Burnett 38% 36.70% 5.60%
Cullen Neal 23.50% 40% 37.50%
Terence Davis 41.50% 70.60% 20.80%
Rasheed Brooks 23.50% 47.40% 11.10%
Breein Tyree 27.80% 20% 0%

Aside from questionable shot selection, the Rebs may have a problem in general when it comes to optimally distributing shots among players. It sounds odd saying this when he’s experiencing career scoring highs, but Saiz may not be getting enough looks, judging by how much more efficient he’s been than the rest of the pack. Out of all Ole Miss players who’ve logged significant minutes, Saiz is first in both points per shot (1.65) and true shooting percentage (63 percent), yet he’s taken only the fifth most shots per 100 possessions (14.4).

In seasons past, Ole Miss has had to deal with arguably greater constraints, more often than not proving to be too insurmountable to earn a tournament bid. This year, however, the main points of frustration are more fixable and not simply a byproduct of a raw talent deficit. As easy as it is to gripe about what’s gone wrong through nine mostly underwhelming non-conference games, the finished product is still to come, and there’s reason to remain optimistic.