Based on last year’s performance and a transition to a new coaching staff, teh bar was set pretty low for this Ole Miss hoops team. Then they rode cohesive guard play, better-than-expected bigs and two game-ready true freshmen to a 13-2 start, including consecutive wins over top-20 programs. Fast forward a few weeks, and the Rebels have lost four of their last five games. They might be on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble at the moment.
So what explains the sudden drop-off? How has a team that played so efficiently through the first 15 contests struggled so much over the past five? Some of the trouble, of course, is simply bad luck. The injury to point guard Devontae Shuler has made things difficult for an already shallow team and the open shots that fell so easily for most of the season haven’t been finding their way in lately.
But some of the issues are well within the Rebels’ power to control. Here are three things they need to do to right the ship.
1. Win games on the road.
The Rebels have suffered just two losses in The Pavilion—both at the hands of teams currently ranked in the top 20. In basketball, much more than football, home court matters a lot. Teams are expected to hold serve at home and steal a few on the road.
If the Rebs manage to win only their remaining home games and drop all the away contests, they’ll finish 20-11 overall and 10-8 in the SEC. But they’d have to knock off No. 1 Tennessee and No. 7 Kentucky to do that. The Rebels face those mammoth teams at home, which increases the likelihood they’ll drop those games. If they do that, they have to find road wins, something that hasn’t been easy given the inconsistencies across the roster. Ole Miss is 3-3 in true road games and is coming off losses in Tuscaloosa and Gainesville.
Wednesday’s showing at Florida might not have ended with a W, but the Rebels, who rallied from a seven-point second-half hole to force overtime, showed some fight. Moral victories don’t count on the resume, but it could lend some of the youngsters confidence moving forward.
2. Get more consistent play from the freshmen.
Speaking of youngsters, K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson have been revelations this year, with Buffen averaging the fifth most minutes on the team and Hinson starting every single game. They do a lot of good things on the court... in spurts. The trouble is that they haven’t put together good games at the same time. Points and rebounds don’t tell the full story of how much a player is contributing, but here’s a comparison of those stats between the two over time.
Those types of wild swings make consistent production tough. Add to this the fact that over the past five games the duo has combined for 13 points on average, and you can see why things have turned south. They’ll need to do a better job of complementing each other moving forward.
3. Get back to playing good defense.
LSU hit 48 percent of its field goals. Florida shot over 49 percent. Iowa State connected on 69 percent of its tries. Those numbers are not good, especially for a team coached by someone who was supposed to bring a tough, physical, disruptive defensive scheme.
This Ole Miss team held an uber-talented (even if struggling) Auburn to 33 percent from the floor. Yet right now, these guys are struggling to get key stops. I don’t have the answer as to how they can fix things defensively, but most of the trouble over the past two games has been on the perimeter—Iowa State and Florida combined to go 19-for-41 (46 percent) from three. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do about that, but the Rebels are giving too many good shooters wide open shots from the perimeter, and that is something you can control given adequate scouting reports and discipline.
If the Rebels want to get back to those winning ways, it will take a return to what got them here and a consistent approach to the game. If not, the home/road splits could be too tough to handle.