Things haven’t gone according to plan this year for Kermit Davis. After earning an 8-seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament, the Rebels returned four starters and added a host of newcomers, including freshman Dude Collum, Sammy Hunter, Austin Crowley, and junior college transfers Khadim Sy and Bryce Williams.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way entering SEC play. Sure, Terence Davis is on to the NBA where he’s averaging double digit minutes for the defending world champions, but if you’re like me you expected a slight step back—perhaps to a bubble team—but certainly not one that wouldn’t make the NIT if the season ended today
Of course, it’s extremely early. Nobody would say a team with a 9-4 record in early January was dead, however this team isn’t passing the eye test right now, and they don’t look so great through the lens of college basketball’s leading analytics metric KenPom. The last two teams appear to be mirror images of each other. The 2018-19 version started at 97th in KenPom, but reached 46th ahead of their first SEC game.
This year’s team began the season at 56th in the nation but has fallen to 86th before their game against Texas A&M to start league play. To make their second NCAA tournament appearance in as many seasons, they’re going to need a similar season in the league last year as their 10-8 finish or, gulp, better.
I’ve done my best to pick out a few key stats, some where last year’s team struggled and some they didn’t. But they almost all fell off during the first half of this season.
114th in defensive efficiency in 2020 vs. 80th in 2019
No, 80th in the country isn’t where Kermit wants his teams to be on the defensive end, but after inheriting a team ranked 168th (almost exactly 50th percentile), it was a big step. Fast forward to this season and the 30+ place drop is significantly. With a one point loss to Memphis, and three of the next five SEC games projected within three points—one point here or there is significant. After the Am years, I don’t think the importance of one extra win per season is lost on Ole Miss fans.
211th in two-point percentage against in 2020 vs. 87th in 2019
The Rebels went from a top quarter of the country team on shots inside the arc to a bottom half. These shots tend to be ones that an effective defense is most likely to affect. A three pointer is often times a little lucky—sure if you get JJ Redick in an empty gym he’s going to make a high percentage, but when average college players are shooting long-range shots their percentages tend to rely less on skill and more on luck.
Two point shots, however, include layups, dunks, uncontested shots near the rim, and everything in between. If your opponent is shooting well from close-range, it’s typically because the defense is giving up easy looks or letting guys get open layups. They’re also 252nd nationally in assist-to-field goals made, a key stat in showing how often a teams made field goals are related to an assist, a sign of teams given easy looks near the basket.
255th in offensive steal percentage in 2020 vs. 178th in 2019
Neither of Kermit’s first two teams in Oxford have been very good at this, but middle of the pack (2019) is certainly better than the bottom third (2020). The 2019 version was able to lean on a number of quality guards and allow their athleticism to get them out of trouble. This year’s team hasn’t been able to do that effectively, partially because the defense is struggling and forcing the offense to force the issue and run into trouble, but also because Terence Davis was able to use his skills all over the court when he stayed out of foul trouble.
That and an up-and-down Breein Tyree is what keeps Kermit Davis up at night, I’m sure.
49th in three-point percentage defense in 2020 vs. 320th in 2019
This may be the scariest stat of all. Remember how shots from three-point range tend to skew more towards luck than skill?
It follows that defensively, too.
Last year’s team was really unlucky when it came to defending the three. That the season went as well as it did was a testament to the offense and interior defense. This year is a different story. The defense is worse, but the three-point defense has flipped on its head. That’s a great sign until you remember it’s mostly luck-based. If things start trending the other direction—that is, teams start getting the friendly roll—the 2020 defense could take an even larger step back.
249th in free throw attempts to field goal attempts in 2020 vs. 203rd in 2019
No, this isn’t the most important stat I’ve listed, but it does show the Rebels are putting opposing teams at the line far too frequently. Free throw percentages vary widely from team-to-team, but the goal will always be to keep your opponents from getting to the line. The Rebels weren’t the best at this in 2019, but they seem to have taken another step back in 2020.
Remember that line about every point mattering?