Ole Miss basketball’s last-place spot in preseason SEC predictions has been highlighted to the point of exhaustion, and it won’t stop any time soon now that the Rebels are heading to a postseason tournament of the four-letter variety. Beating out those low expectations is is the reason that Kermit Davis was named SEC Coach of the Year this week. Needless to say, it’s well-deserved.
Given the lack of meaningful banners hanging in the Pavilion, this would be considered a strong year within any period of Ole Miss basketball. The fact that the Rebels will (likely) earn their third NCAA tournament bid over a mostly mediocre 17-year stretch speaks for itself, but the numbers back up the argument that this team should stand out to fans in a big way.
In Kermit’s first season, Ole Miss finished 43rd in the KenPom ratings, which doesn’t leave much room for hyperbole, but is still only bested by the 2013 SEC champions when looking over the past decade of Rebel squads. Considering this was meant to be at best a proof-of-concept year, it’s remarkable that Davis turned it into one of the school’s best in recent memory.
In a brutal year to be playing basketball in the SEC, Ole Miss improved its conference record from 5-13 the year before to a respectable 10-8. This year features six different SEC teams in the top 30 in KenPom rankings, and as many as seven could make the dance. For an idea of just how much tougher the conference has gotten, zero SEC teams were in the top 30 a decade ago.
Since expanding to 14 schools six seasons ago, the SEC has produced just four teams to make the tournament with 20 or fewer wins, two of them from a year ago. Depending on how this weekend goes, Ole Miss may be the fifth. A finish just over .500 in conference play sounds like a standard NIT-qualifying Andy Kennedy-esque outing, but with the widely acknowledged steeper level of SEC competition in recent years, last Saturday’s win over Missouri essentially clinched a tournament bid for Davis’ Rebels.
Making it out alive through an unforgiving slate of opponents is one thing, but it’s another feat entirely to give some heavyweights a run for their money. Ole Miss put the country on notice in early January with back-to-back wins over No. 11 Auburn and No. 14 Mississippi State. After a rough stretch in which they lost five of six, the Rebels recovered by taking care of some weaker conference foes, but their close losses to No. 7 Tennessee and No. 6 Kentucky were arguably more impressive, confirming the intuition of many that this team could already hang with a few of the best teams in the country. Keeping things close with those two meant having to overcome a shooting deficit by creating advantages elsewhere, mainly by getting extra points on the boards and at the foul line.
Over the three seasons prior to Kermit’s first year in Oxford, Ole Miss played seven games against teams in the top 20 in KenPom, losing all by an average margin of 16 points. This season, they had to play five such games, coming out of it 2-3 with a total point differential of exactly 0. To say they’ve come a long way would be an understatement.
Davis’ accomplishments are even more impressive given this team’s glaring lack of size and depth. The 2019 Rebs had just one active player taller than 6’8, compared to the 2013 and 2015 NCAA Tournament teams, which had three and five, respectively. Of course, having a dynamic trio of guards can help make up for that, but they stood out in the SEC by not boasting a formidable big. Making matters worse was that Terence Davis, Breein Tyree, and Devontae Schuler all had to play more than 30 minutes a game to keep Ole Miss in games — neither of those two other tournament teams had to play each of their top three players that much.
It’s reasonable for one to hope for recruiting to eventually shore up the depth issues that may have limited the Rebels’ ceiling in 2019, but it’s apparent that under Davis, Ole Miss can already compete when they have just enough talent. It’s also worth noting that just because he delivered a tournament team his first year with Power Five resources doesn’t guarantee that special things are to come down the road. There’s very little certainty in Ole Miss athletics, so this season should be enjoyed without thinking too much about the future.