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Oklahoma’s defense won’t make things easy for Ole Miss

The Rebels’ first-round NCAA Tourney opponent boasts one of the best defenses in the country.

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NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Oklahoma Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

As thrilling as it is for Kermit Davis to have propelled Ole Miss to the NCAA tournament his first year in Oxford, he won’t be entering Friday’s NCAA Tournament game vs. Oklahoma with a ton of momentum, having lost five of the last seven. That hasn’t prevented them from opening as two-point favorites, but in the eyes of at least some, the Sooners’ defense gives OU the slight edge in a dicey eight vs. nine seed skirmish.

According to KenPom, Oklahoma ranks 23rd nationally in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency, with the seventh toughest schedule in terms of opposing offenses faced. Oklahoma’s success on this end of floor has been very much a team effort, as six of their major contributors boast a defensive rating of less than 100 points per 100 possessions (Ole Miss has just one in Terence Davis).

While that’s nothing to shrug off, one positive for the Rebels is how the Sooners have fared against similarly elite offenses. They’ve played seven different top-30 offenses this season, and while that includes games against Wofford and Baylor in which they allowed a combined 117 points, they went 2-5 overall against those teams. Ole Miss has played two defenses that rate higher than Oklahoma’s, having put up a respectable 76 against both Florida and Kentucky in regulation (the Rebels lost both games).

That doesn’t guarantee an easy outing for Kermit’s offense (ranked 28th), as they’ve had their share of struggles against athletic teams that can protect the paint, most recently scoring only 19 points in the second half against Alabama. While Ole Miss has the goods to light up the scoreboard this Friday, Oklahoma boasts a formidable defensive profile that should be taken seriously.

When taking a closer look at the numbers, it becomes immediately apparent that the Sooners prioritize limiting quality shots in the paint, even if it means allowing more looks from outside. Over 37 percent of opposing points have come from beyond the arc (31st nationally), but just 33 percent of those attempts have gone in.

The Rebels (36 percent from three on the year) certainly have the personnel to challenge that figure, and may be due for a bounce-back shooting performance after going seven for 26 from deep against the Tide last Thursday. In fact, they may need exactly that to have a chance here, because they could have a tough time consistently generating points inside against this defense.

Oklahoma has allowed just 52 percent of opposing shots near the rim to go in (eighth nationally), and that’s despite no one on their roster standing out as a rim protector — the starting front-court duo of Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek stand 6’7 and 6’9, respectively. On top of that, the Sooners’ defense ranks third in free throw rate, so Ole Miss may want to be more selective than usual when trying to attack the rim.

It’s been a mixed bag of results when the Rebels have been stymied in the paint this season. Back in January, Mississippi State allowed just 56 percent of Ole Miss’ shots near the rim to go in, well below their season average of 67 percent. Ole Miss responded by shooting 12 of 31 from three, but they also attempted 20 free throws. When LSU came to Oxford that following Tuesday, they allowed only 11 shots at the rim and forced 16 turnovers. The Rebels couldn’t counter with outside shooting this time, making just 29 percent of their threes.

All things considered, the Rebels could be in for a tough outing in half-court, which means they may want to look for opportunities in transition. While they’re not known as a high-pace offense, they’ve picked their spots well in terms of when to speed things up, having made 41 percent of transition threes and 71 percent of shots at the rim. Oklahoma has a top-40 transition defense, but with an inconsistent offense that struggles on the boards, they may create enough chances for Ole Miss to take advantage.

The good news for Ole Miss is that they’ll be facing an offense that’s scored 65 or fewer points on 11 different occasions this season — that’s only happened five times for the Rebels. If they hold it together (easier said than done), they may not need to be stellar against a decidedly elite Oklahoma defense.