If there was one person who had something to say about Ole Miss being placed at the dregs of SEC preseason rankings, it was Kermit Davis.
At his opening press conference, he made his own set of expectations pretty clear.
“We’re not going to have eight or nine years (of rebuilding) here,” Davis said. “We’ve got to improve those [returning] guys. There’s talent in that locker room. We’ve got to individually get their development to go up.”
In retrospect, it makes sense that Davis, whose Rebels have raced out to a 13-2 record and a top-25 ranking, expected more immediate returns than what many outside the program had in mind. They were bringing back the main pieces of a roster that had generated a decent amount of hype heading into what would be end up being a brutal final season for Andy Kennedy. We knew Davis was inheriting proven playmakers in Terence Davis and Breein Tyree. We knew Davis had established a track record of overachieving at Middle Tennessee State. So perhaps assuming a throwaway debut season was a bit premature (hindsight is 20/20).
But it’s one thing for the Rebels to be showing life early on in the season, which until recently, was essentially all they were doing. It’s another feat entirely to, in just a week’s time, take down two ranked programs that have stockpiled top-100 players over the past several years. Whether or not it’s fair to raise the bar for Ole Miss hoops so soon, Kermit Davis has done exactly that in the short amount of time he’s been in Oxford.
Davis has built an extremely efficient offensive attack.
This was already a top-25 group in offensive efficiency heading into conference play, having put up a 57.1 effective field goal percentage in non-con play, good for 10th nationally.
As encouraging as those early returns were, there were legitimate concerns about whether the production would sustain against tougher competition—the only time they faced a top-30 defense, they scored just 57 against Cincinnati. While they still haven’t faced a better defense than that of the Bearcats, Ole Miss’ recent string of statement wins serves as some nice validation to an overall hot start. The Rebels have averaged over 81 points per game in league play and rank third in the SEC in conference-only effective field goal percentage.
It was encouraging on its own to see a different Rebel score 26 or more points in each of the last three games, but the team as a whole has demonstrated versatility on the way to breaking into the top-25.
Ole Miss has adapted to the situation.
Going into the home stand against Auburn, the Rebels weren’t known for attacking the rim and getting to the foul line, something they’d need to improve on when finding clean shots from the floor inevitably became harder in SEC play. By their own lofty standards, they did have an off shooting night against the Tigers, putting up their lowest eFG since the loss to Cincinnati. Aside from playing some very rude defense, Ole Miss overcame any relative shooting woes by attempting more free throws (37) than any other game this season. They were better than the Tigers in nearly every facet of the game that night, but generating 20 more chances at the line gave them the edge in the program’s first signature win of the week.
Saturday’s upset in Starkville posed a different challenge, this time one of size. Judging by most games this season, Kermit Davis has emphasized a pretty even distribution between shots at the rim and three-pointers. But facing a team with three different blue chips standing 6’10 or taller, Ole Miss shot well below its season average of 67 percent at the rim.
With limited options, the Rebels responded by taking more than half of their shots from beyond the arc, sinking 12 of 31 three-pointers. Ole Miss had already proven to be a threat from deep through 14 games (shooting 38 percent from three on the year), but they had been more selective with when to let it fly. Jacking threes worked this time, and while that approach may not be sustainable every game, their ability to provide a lethal answer to getting abused in the paint is why they’re sitting at 18th in the AP poll right now.
The defense has hidden its personnel weaknesses very well.
Considering the Rebels have just one rotation player taller than 6’8, it’s hard to complain about them ranking 63rd nationally in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency. Over the past two games alone, they’ve moved up more than 20 spots in KenPom, so they’re doing something right.
This defense has proven to be vulnerable in certain contexts, especially against teams loaded with bigs, but they’ve also made it very difficult for teams to consistently create quality shots. There are a handful of situations and areas on the floor where just about every Division I team is efficient shooting. Ole Miss has responded by minimizing those opportunities, sitting in the top 25 in both percentage of shots allowed in transition (19.7) and at the rim (27.9), thanks to both stingy perimeter defense and something of a presence inside. In turn, they’ve forced over 35 percent of opposing shots to come from mid-range (10th nationally).
Depth inside is a glaring issue, as they’ve allowed 22 offensive rebounds over the last two games alone—the biggest player on the team isn’t even their best rebounder. Needless to say, their lack of size could rear its ugly head deep into SEC play, but so far, they’ve been excellent just about everywhere else to keep it from affecting their win total.