It was startling at first, right from the opening tipoff. Ole Miss stopped two-straight Auburn possessions then scored twice in a row to punctuate those sets with a 5-0 opening lead. It was fast fast fast, and it elicited a “HOLY SHIT, MAN” from me alone in my home office. And it only ticked up from there.
The sprint start was indicative of how Ole Miss would take advantage of fast-break turnovers and convert them into scoring runs, eventually pulling off an 82-67 win over the country’s 11th ranked team.
The Rebs played fast, loose, physical, and detailed. It was the highest pressure moment of Kermit Davis’ young tenure in Oxford—with 8,000 screaming witnesses there to watch—and he adjusted as needed on the fly, dialed up the right defensive sets, and in the end led his men through their second-half struggles to a convincing victory over a highly ranked conference rival.
For Ole Miss to hold Auburn to 33 percent shooting—the Tigers entered the night ranked No. 8 in offensive efficiency—is a thing of beauty. Yes, Bruce Pearl’s boys probably had a down night on the offensive side of the ball, but a large factor in that downturn was Ole Miss’ tenacity on the perimeter and in the paint on defense. The Rebs disrupted passing lanes and contested balls, running down stray dispossessions and converting them into effective points at key moments.
It’s time to start considering that this Rebel time might just be NCAA Tournament-ready in Year 1 under Davis.
Perhaps Auburn was just having a bad night on the road. Perhaps Ole Miss was having a damn good night at home.
Both of those statements can be true at the same time. They in fact sort of explain the logic of the other, given that an unranked Ole Miss club receiving no top 25 votes sniped off an Auburn shop that’s garnered wins over Arizona, Xavier and No. 25 Washington. The Tigers entered the game with the No. 8 offensive attack in KenPom’s efficiency rating system, and made just a third of their shots from the floor. All told: one team fell apart on alien soil, and the home team whacked them when they needed to, and repeatedly.
There’s no telling where Rebel hoops goes from now to the end of the season. Perhaps the Basketsharks lose a few head-scratchers between here and March. Perhaps they propel themselves to postseason glory.
This could also preface the story of Ole Miss basketball’s return to the NCAA tournament. Why not make wild predictions after just one game?
Davis is currently doing in Year 1 what nobody who follows Ole Miss hoops thought he could do in Year 1. He’s built a visual basketball cohesiveness on both ends of the court. That is, he’s convinced this team to buy into five-man basketball, which can steal late-season wins from the also-ranked Mississippi States of the world.
Let’s pause to talk about that defense: Ole Miss sits at No. 70 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 97 points per 100 possessions. Auburn ranks No. 27 and got lit up by the Rebel shooters. Flipping the court around, Ole Miss ranks No. 27 in offensive efficiency right now, and they improved their efficiency from the mid-30s on Wednesday night against Auburn’s No. 27 ranked defense. The Rebs didn’t exceed the Tigers’ average defensive points allowed, but they certainly suppressed Auburn’s average scoring efficiency. That’s where the game was won, and that’s where tournament runs are generated late in the season.
What this win would then seem to encourage is quiet whispering about Ole Miss’ chances come selection Sunday for the madness of March. If what these Rebs offered up on Wednesday night was anything like their most consistent, constant level of play, this is a tournament team. If they backslide after the high of Wednesday night, that’s understandable.
Either way, at 12-2 and undefeated in SEC play, Kermit’s got this club far, far ahead of schedule in just his first 14 games in charge. He’s playing with his predecessor’s pieces, and he’s thriving. That’s damn good coaching.
Should we pump the breaks on March Madness talk? Maybe. Probably. Who knows. Let’s just enjoy this one and root these guys into the field of 68.
It’s yet to be seen what the weight of this upset will be—whether it’ll spark a better-than-expected conference run or a disappointing-but-expected second half to the season—though right now the singular noun swirling about Ole Miss men’s hoops in Kermit Davis’ Year 1 is this: optimism.
Optimism about a postseason opportunity in either the NIT or NCAA tournament. Optimism about the improved defense under Kermit’s newly installed 1-3-1 hybrid zone. Optimism about the Rebel offensive’s newfound purpose and aggression around the rim. Optimism about young talents like Devontae Shuler and Blake Hinson establishing strong, contributing roles in the starting platoon.
Optimism about basketball, in Oxford.
This singular performance against the Plainsmen ranks high in the recent memory of Rebel basketball fans. New coach, recently new arena, ESPN in the house, packed stands. Hopefully this bodes well for Kermit’s Year 1 and beyond.