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What we learned about Ole Miss basketball during non-con play

Before the Rebs open SEC play against Vandy on Saturday, let’s take a look at what we know so far.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 21 Ole Miss v Middle Tennessee Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the end of the non-conference slate of games, Ole Miss sits at a very respectable 10-2. The Rebels carry a NET ranking of 43rd, which would theoretically place them as a bubble team in the NCAA tournament given the number of auto-bids that will eventually go to small conference tournament winners.

While I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from the games that have been played so far, given so many have come against very bad teams, there are takeaways that can’t be denied. The biggest, and one that really dictates a number of the more nuanced ones, is that Kermit Davis’ reputation as a disciplinarian who gets his players to play within his system has come to fruition so far.

The team is getting the ball into the lane more, waiting for high percentage shots and playing passionate defense. Beyond that, there are a slew of individual takeaways worth discussing.

1. Breein Tyree is better than we thought.

As a sophomore last season, Tyree shot 39 percent overall. This year, through the easy slate of games, he’s shooting 52 percent. He’s a different player offensively, even though he’s shooting more threes. That’s because he’s playing off the ball more as a shooting guard. Kermit Davis isn’t asking him to bring the ball up the court and make things happen but is allowing Tyree to use his elite athleticism to get open and get shots off.

Defensively, Tyree has really stepped up his game. Early this season, he looked like the same unengaged player from last year who watched opposing plays develop and acted too late. Over the second half of the non-conference schedule though, Tyree changed. He’s never going to be an elite defender, but he’s not a liability there anymore. With the perimeter defense elsewhere on the roster, that’s all he needs to do.

2. Terence Davis can be an efficient shooter, but he’s still going to have lots of frustrating turnovers.

Davis has turned things around in terms of court discipline both offensively and defensively. His offensive efficiency has skyrocketed as well, as he’s taking better shots throughout games. He’s cut down slightly on fouls, which has let him play more minutes and kept the heat off the bench.

Defensively, he has really turned things around in terms of effort. His athleticism has never been a question, but he’s sticking with his man more and has really been a boost to the 1-3-1 when Kermit Davis chooses to go with it.

Unfortunately, he’s actually turning the ball over more than ever, and that’s without seeing the elite defenders SEC play brings. After averaging 2.3 turnovers per game last season, he’s up to 3.1. If Davis wants to have any shot at the NBA, he has to rein in his passes and ensure he’s not giving the ball away so much.

3. Devontae Shuler isn’t an ideal point guard offensively, but he’s incredible on defense.

Shuler is out of place as a point guard who isn’t a great distributor or facilitator offensively, but (and this is a huge but) he’s the best on-ball defender on the team. Seriously, I wish I could find a highlight tweet to really show what I’m talking about, but sticking to your man like glue isn’t all that tweet-worthy. Essentially, he’s just astonishingly good at not over-committing to any fakes from ballhandlers. When they step back, so does he. It has to be infuriating to play against someone like that, and that’s why the best guard for many of Ole Miss’ opponents has gone silent.

The key to victory this season is going to be defense by the guards, and Shuler is a huge asset there. He’s also a good shooter and has especially stepped up his three point percentage.

4. The returning bigs are rough but have contributed.

Dominik Olejniczak and Bruce Stevens are who we thought they were at this point. Both are putting more effort in defensively, but they’re also frustratingly bad rebounders, something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from Stevens (252 pounds) or Dom (7’0”). Combined, the pair is averaging just 7.4 boards per game.

It’s important to point out that both have seen some improvement though. Dom is only taking high percentage shots and has shown an increase in assertiveness going to the basket. His hands aren’t great, but he’s figuring out ways to help the team.

Stevens is stretching the floor with more three-point attempts at a better clip (33 percent to last year’s 28). It’s imperative that defenders not camp out in the lane, given Kermit Davis’ desire to get the ball there more than Andy Kennedy’s teams did. Stevens has also cut down on fouls, which is important to this team (more on that in a bit).

5. The jury is still out on the freshmen.

Everyone is ready to crown Blake Hinson and K.J. Buffen as future All-SEC players, but I don’t see how we can say that at this point. Both have contributed a great deal this season, with Hinson starting and Buffen coming off the bench as the first or second option, but Hinson struggles to contribute as a rebounder, and Buffen isn’t proving to be a good shooter (something that’s a big problem for a 6’7” forward in Kermit Davis’ system).

I think they’re both in line to be major contributors to this team, but to mistake their enormous playing time as anything more than an indictment on the other bigs on the team is likely a misstep.

That said, I really like them both. Buffen is a do-it-all stat-stuffer, and Hinson is a steady presence whose impact is not fully felt by looking at a box score at the end of the game. They’re real assets to the team and will only get better in coming years.

I also like guard Luis Rodriguez, especially as a defensive contributor. He’s only playing around eight minutes per game right now though, and it’s hard to evaluate his contributions beyond great man defense.

6. This basketball team has no depth

The team hasn’t reached conference play yet and is already only playing eight guys a night. The eighth highest minutes per game total on the team is only 11, which is not what you want to see. Most of you have likely heard how Davis, Tyree, and Shuler are near the top of the SEC in minutes played, and there’s a good reason for that. The next highest guard on the team is... that eighth man, D.C. Davis. That is to say, there are only three guards on the team who play more than 11 minutes per game.

So the problem with this comes when the slog of league play hits and everyone is sore. It’s exacerbated when there’s an injury or two. This team can’t afford for any of its top five players to have off nights, and that’s definitely going to happen.