Fans and media alike know Andy Kennedy doesn’t sugarcoat things in his press conferences. So when he called his team ‘a disaster’ following the Rebels third overtime loss of the year, he meant it. But things aren’t always as bad as they seem. The Basketbearsharks followed up their disastrous loss to Illinois State with a couple of blowouts, including likely their best performance of the year against a 9-3 Bradley squad that will likely end up in the top 100 RPI rankings.
There is still a lot of season to go, and compared to his last couple of teams, this one really isn’t that far behind. Ole Miss ranks just four places lower than their ranking at the end of 2016-17, according to KenPom. Of course, that team didn’t make the NCAA tournament and it wasn’t all that close so that mark isn’t exactly one to aim for.
Since 2007, the SEC has had two or more teams outside of the top 100 KenPom teams. The 2011 version saw five teams outside of the top 100 and only three in the top 50. Today, half of the SEC is inside the top 50 and the lowest ranked team is LSU at No. 83. That means there isn't a single guaranteed win left on the schedule for the Rebels, but it also means all 19 remaining games are chances for quality wins, and more than half of them come on the road.
Last year’s team was far more balanced, ranking in the top 100 of adjusted offense and defense according to KenPom. This year the Rebels boast a borderline elite offense and a decidedly average defense. Maybe it is simply coach speak, but the rumor is defense is about effort. No matter how hard one tries, you cannot simply will yourself from a 30 percent three-point shooter into a 40 percent three-point shooter in between games in the month of January or February. Shooting isn’t that easy, but maybe diving for a loose ball or communicating off screens can be.
A couple of the biggest areas for improvement for the defense could come on hustle plays. The defense allows teams to get rebounds on 30.3 percent of their own misses, good for 216th nationally. They also force turnovers on just 18.4 percent of possessions ranking 210th. With the amount of talent and experience the Rebels have in the backcourt, this team should be causing more turnovers.
With that said, the first two weeks of SEC play could decide this season altogether. The Rebels begin conference play hosting South Carolina before alternating home and away with a pair of Bulldogs, Auburn, and Florida. KenPom gives The Good Guys a coin flip chance in three of these games and with a lesser chance at Georgia and a likely loss on the Plains. Starting with worse than a 3-2 record means things could be over before they even get started.
Last year, Davis, Burnett, and Co. went 5-3 against those five opponents, and they seem to match up just as well this year. South Carolina returns just two starters from their Final Four team last year, and it’s not the two Frank Martin would hope. The Gamecocks will play great defense but struggle holding onto the ball or putting it into the basket. Ole Miss can’t defend the three or grab a defensive board, but starting off with a win over USC in Oxford could get things back on track in a huge way.