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Auburn is an easier opponent for Ole Miss, but winning is no guarantee

After dropping their first two conference games to the SEC’s best, the Rebels need a win against a very beatable Tigers squad.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The losses to Kentucky and Florida offered little to Ole Miss fans outside of feelings of helplessness and despair, but with the exception of South Carolina (twice), there’s a good chance the Rebs won’t face a tougher matchup over the rest of their SEC slate.

Auburn, despite being 10-4, is 105th in KenPom and is the conference’s fourth weakest team in terms of both net rating and strength of schedule. Most recently, they lost to the decent but uninspiring squads of Georgia and Vanderbilt by an average margin of 15.5 points.

While Sebastian Saiz has been a consistent fixture for the Rebels on both sides of court, Saturday’s contest in (at? on?) the Plains presents a chance for the rest of the team to catch up production-wise. No one else on the roster has come close to earning the praise Saiz deserves, but they’ve shown enough positive streaks that it may be time for things to finally come together.

Given all of the Rebels’ concerns, this is by no means a cakewalk, but a game against a relatively easy opponent couldn’t come at a better time.

The offense needs to reestablish its rhythm.

Against Florida, Ole Miss turned the ball over a sacrilegious 29.5 percent of their plays, generating 18 points for Florida. The encouraging part, if there is one, was how well the Rebels shot when they weren’t vomiting up possessions — they put up an eFG of 56.4 percent compared to the Gators’ 49. Still, the turnovers mean something, and they can’t be disregarded as some one-time anomaly. Ole Miss needs a high usage point guard badly.

Prior to conference play, opponents were shooting under 30 percent from beyond the arc against Auburn. Georgia and Vanderbilt combined to shoot 39 percent from three against the Tigers, so there’s hope for the shooting tandem of Deandre Burnett and Cullen Neal to bounce back. On the season, they’ve combined to make three pointers at roughly the same rate as their attempts near the rim, so it should be clear by now what their specialty is.

I’d normally point out an opportunity to take advantage of Auburn’s poor transition defense, but given the turnover issues, they’re likely better off being selective in terms of when to play aggressively. Against Florida, most of the Rebels’ transition shots were after a steal (instead of a rebound), and it paid off with an eFG of 75 percent in these situations.

Shutting down Auburn begins with, yep, defending the three.

Ole Miss has been torched from deep enough times this season to conclude that it takes just two or three decent shooters to make an impact, and the team’s overall season average from three is irrelevant. The freshman trio of Mustapha Heron, Danjel Purifoy, and Jared Harper have shot a healthy 38 percent from downtown — at this point, I expect that number to only go up against the Rebs. The defense has struggled to help and recover all season long, ranking 322nd in Division 1 at opponent three point percentage.

A transformation on the perimeter would obviously go a long way, as 42 percent of Auburn’s field goal attempts are from three, but it would help to cut off their other options around the floor. Even after getting manhandled in the paint against Kentucky, the Rebels are the third best team in the SEC when it comes to defending shots at the rim. They allowed just four of Florida’s 11 non-transition attempts near the rim to go in, despite the Gators making 61 percent of these shots on the season. Even playing just 23 minutes per game, Justas Furmanavicius leads the team with 17 blocks in the paint this season.

With it being this early in conference play, a new game brings abundantly more information about each team. We’ll learn a lot about Andy Kennedy’s group based on whether or not they can pick up this critical, but attainable, win on the road.