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Ole Miss hoops is back on track after a midseason slump

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The Rebels could have folded after losing five of six. They didn’t.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

In retrospect, a little too much may have been made of Ole Miss’ mid-to-late January slump, as it included losses to the No. 13 LSU Tigers and an Iowa State team that seems destined for a top-six tournament seed. It doesn’t hurt that the Rebels have clawed out of that rough patch, having won five of their last six.

There’s a good bit to glean from their recent run, the main thing being that they can take care of business over a relatively easy slate of SEC foes. Four of their last five wins have come against teams outside the top 80 in KenPom, which may not seem impressive, but after a while, consistently stringing together wins like these should start to mean something. Ole Miss beat Texas A&M, Georgia (twice), and Missouri by an average of eight points, and considering they’re working with the same, if not fewer, resources as those programs, that margin shouldn’t be shrugged off.

Over the same stretch, the Rebels’ win at Auburn showed that on occasion, this team can punch a (relative) heavyweight in the mouth, and do so in unusual fashion, at that. Rather than turning it into a shootout, Kermit Davis recognized the Tigers’ heavy reliance on tempo to score points and slowed the game down to limit those extra opportunities. Going into that game, Auburn was averaging 71 possessions and 17 shots in transition per contest. In the five-point loss to the Rebels, they managed just 63 and 11, respectively.

That night on the Plains highlighted Ole Miss’ ability to win in multiple ways, adding even more meaning to what was already a monumental victory. It also punctuated the Rebels’ stark improvement on the defensive end; over their last five losses, they had given up over 113 points per 100 possessions, but they knocked that number down to just 92 over the four-game win streak. Most of their work of late has come against bad offenses, but the opponent-adjusted numbers like them enough to boost them to 53rd in defensive KenPom.

While the big picture remains positive, the past week of games prompted an all-too-familiar wave of anxiety to interrupt what’s otherwise been a decent run. Last Tuesday in Columbia, Ole Miss was in for more of a challenge than any advanced stats would have suggested, getting routed by the 14-13 Gamecocks after squandering a 13-2 start to the game. Had they responded with another decisive win over Georgia, that 15-point loss would have been easy to forget, but the Rebels barely survived a last-second shot from the Bulldogs after leading at the half by ten. In just four games, Ole Miss has dropped from 26th to 41st in offensive efficiency, having shot just 41 percent from the field over that stretch. Nevertheless, they sit at fourth in the SEC at 9-5, and their tournament hopes remain intact.

The Rebels have arguably done enough already this season that it’d be hard to complain about a 2-2 finish to conference play. Looking ahead, that may be the most realistic outcome, as they’ll face both Tennessee and Kentucky in Oxford. Considering Ole Miss hasn’t beaten a top-ten opponent since 2013, and that they’ve already had four double-digit losses to worse teams than those two this season, it’s hard to hold out much hope here. If either turns into an ugly loss, it shouldn’t be taken without some broader context of the season as a whole.

The good news is they get to play two teams they’ve already beaten comfortably in Arkansas and Missouri, who sit at 66th and 91st in KenPom, respectively. We’ve learned that despite the overall solid play, Ole Miss is still fully capable of beating itself, so nothing’s guaranteed.

By regaining composure and avoiding a mid-season collapse, Kermit’s squad has set itself up nicely for its first tournament bid in four seasons — provided things go roughly as planned over the next few weeks.