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It’s do-or-die time for Ole Miss basketball

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This week is Kermit Davis’ best opportunity to regain momentum.

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

Much has been said of the low expectations heading into Kermit Davis’ first season at Ole Miss, with many suggesting that any wins going forward are simply icing on the cake for a proof-of-concept year. That’s fair, but this team could be doing better than losing five of its last six.

Ole Miss was projected to finish last in the conference not so much for specific basketball-related reasons, but largely because of how last season spiraled out of control (5-13 in SEC play), with the assumption that it’d be hard for a brand new coaching staff to propel them into relevance in less than a year’s time. The Rebels may have personnel and depth issues, but with what talent Davis did inherit, coupled with the early January success, it’s getting increasingly difficult to stomach losses like the last few.

If there’s anything remotely positive to take away from the Rebels’ mid-season slump, it’s that we would be having an entirely different conversation if Ole Miss had avoided collapse in the final moments of the last two games. That in itself is painful to acknowledge, but nearly beating two strong conference foes in Florida and Mississippi State is a better story than losing by double digits (which is what they had been doing). Losing close games doesn’t do much for their resume at the moment, but it could mean more competitive ones going forward.

The good news is that Ole Miss will finally get some relief after an unforgiving stretch of opponents, which included five different top-25 teams, according to KenPom. The last time they played someone outside the top 100, they won by 10 in Nashville. The Rebels get two such teams this week: Texas A&M and Georgia, which have combined to go 2-14 in SEC play.

It’s the kind of slate we wouldn’t have sweat over a few weeks ago, but given the current state of things, even the very poopy teams should be taken seriously. The Ole Miss program may have a bright future beyond 2019, but winning games like these is imperative in showing that.

While the Rebel offense has maintained a top-25 spot in opponent-adjusted efficiency, the defense has slipped to 84th after allowing 47 percent of opposing threes to land over the last three games. Ole Miss has a chance to prove they can still hunker down on the perimeter against an anemic Aggie offense (142nd in efficiency) that’s made less than 30 percent of its deep shots on the year.

A&M may be one of the worst shooting teams in the conference, but they could very well make up for it with offensive rebounding, having secured nearly a third of their own misses this season. Crashing the boards hasn’t consistently been a problem for Ole Miss this season, but it’s popped up enough times to be worried heading into Wednesday’s matchup. Most recently, they let State grab 13 of their 31 misses from the floor, as neither of their two bigs recorded a single defensive rebound.

While they’ve been similarly lackluster on offense, Georgia has been even more aggressive than A&M on the boards this year with an offensive rebounding rate of 35.1 percent, and they also boast a top-20 free throw attempt rate. They had a bizarre January that included four different games in which they shot under 40 percent from the field, as well as a 98-point shooting clinic against Texas. They could certainly lay an egg on their home court, but they’re fully capable of taking advantage of an Ole Miss defense trending downward.