With SEC play beginning Monday, it seems like a good time to dive into this year’s women’s basketball team and see how things are going.
The 6-0 Ole Miss Rebels will take on the 3-4 Tigers of LSU at 3pm CST in the Pavillion. This first game could help set the tone for an Ole Miss team that has found great success in out-of-conference play but has been bitten a lot by COVID recently, having cancelled its last two games as well as its first.
But I’m not going to write up a whole pregame for the LSU game. This isn’t about that. Instead, I’ll be talking about the remarkable season so far and how it got to this point. Obviously you know that the team is 6-0, given that first paragraph up there, but without context, that may just seem like a decent start, given low levels of opponents so far (and it partially is).
There’s a lot more to it than that though.
Last season’s team wouldn’t be 6-0.
Last year, the Lady Rebs went 8-6 before conference play started, losing to the likes of UNO, Southern Miss, Southeast Missouri, Louisiana, and several Power 5 teams. It narrowly beat Georgia Southern in overtime. The only common opponents so far between this season and last have been Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State. A year ago, this team won those games by 19 and 18 respectively.
This season? 40 and 56!
Simply being better than last season’s team that went winless in SEC play obviously won’t cut it. This team has to be much, much better.
But maybe they are indeed much, much better.
Last year’s team was always at a severe disadvantage in height and didn’t really make up for that in any other quality. Its highest scoring big was Dominique Banks (no longer with the team) who averaged six points and six rebounds despite being 6-foot-5. This year, two Rebels over six-feet tall are averaging both more points and more rebounds. But we’ll get into the newcomers in a minute.
Another way we can see significant positive change is in Valerie Nesbitt, who averaged 24 minutes per game last year but is only managing 14 per game so far this season. Nesbitt was arguably the best or second best player on the team a year ago. Now, she’s a change of pace player who comes in to play hard defense for a few minutes at a time.
Lastly, there are the margins of victory. I’m not going to go through figuring out an average because I’m lazy, but it is starkly different. Last year’s highest margin of victory was 27 points against Alabama State.This year’s team has bested that margin in every game other than Kansas (which it won by 17).
It’s just night and day different.
How did last season end up so bad for a second year coach?
Here’s the one and only time I’ll tell this story again.
On March 2, 2018, Ole Miss fired Matt Insell after a terrible season. Then…over a month passed. Coaches shuffled around a ton. Lots of Ole Miss players announced they were transferring. On April 4th, Ole Miss announced it was hiring Yolett McPhee-McCuin, and she had a lot of work to do.
In fact, Coach Yo had to find nine new players to fill a roster of thirteen after signing day. Finding nine players who should be on an SEC roster was impossible, and her first class (if we’re even calling it that) was heavily skewed towards transfers. Predictably, her first season went terribly, as she didn’t have the athletes necessary to compete.
As is the case for any class built on senior transfers and players who ultimately prove not to be SEC caliber, she had the same numbers problem a year later, having to fill nine spots once more. She signed two top 100 high school players in the class. One failed to qualify. The other tore her ACL in the fifth game of the year. The team was a disaster, and then she suspended Nesbitt for the rest of the season.
It got so bad that Yo was forced to play a team manager in 12 of its last 13 games. Yes. Tootie Rankin, someone who was not planning to play basketball after high school, played a lot as a junior, starting three games But enough about last year.Let’s talk about…
The Newcomers ain’t bad.
This team’s improvement has come almost entirely from an influx of new talent. ESPN ranked the class 9th nationally and 1st in the conference. While the Rebels do feature two starters who were on the team a year ago in point guard Mimi Reid and wing Taylor Smith, almost all of the production is coming from players who weren’t in Red and Blue a year ago.
Freshman power forward Madison Scott (a former five-star recruit) has been remarkable, already scoring back-to-back SEC freshman of the week awards. At 6-foot-1, she leads the Rebels in rebounding (7.8) and has done a fantastic job at not forcing things offensively, converting on 62 percent of her shots, primarily around the rim.
Maryland transfer center Shakira Austin has been everything the coaches hoped for and more so far, as the 6-foot-5 big leads the Rebels in scoring with 17.8 points per game. She has been a joy to watch so far this year, as she dominates every opponent in the low post. Her phenomenal athleticism is a significant mismatch in every game, and watching her alter the way teams have to attack the rim has been a joy.
Certainly, the level of competition is about to pick up, but it’s clear why ESPN ranked her as the No. 1 transfer in women’s basketball last offseason. If I’m being picky, I think she tries to do too much away from the post, as a focus on being a dominant big would probably cut down her turnovers (2.5 per game).
The last bit of the primary trio of new faces is Donetta Johnson, a transfer from UGA who sat out last season. The 5-foot-11 shooting guard is Ole Miss’ primary scoring threat away from the rim, averaging 12.7 points per game on just under a 40 percent clip. She does force shots a bit too much, but she goes hard on defense and is playing the most minutes on the team.
There are plenty of other impactful newcomers (six of the top eight scorers), and several of them are beginning to understand what their roles are. FOr instance, it’s becoming clearer that Tiya Douglas is a three point specialist, Snudda Collins is a “little bit of everything” wing, and Cailtin McGee is a capable power forward who can play in the low post occasionally.
All these players help provide Yo with the depth her attacking defense requires. She didn’t have any pieces she needed in her first two seasons at the helm of the program. She does now.
The future is very bright.