The Rebels take on Florida at 2:25 this afternoon after earning a double-bye in the tournament. If you’re like most Ole Miss fans, right around now is when you’ve decided to tune in. You feel a little guilty for suddenly jumping on the bandwagon, having not supported the team. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.
Big picture here: two years ago, the team went 0-16 in conference play. Fast forward two seasons, and they’re 22-7 (10-6) and bound for the NCAA tournament no matter what happens this weekend. It’s a remarkable turnaround, and one that is completely unprecedented.
The inversion isn’t the result of just one thing, as nearly everything has gotten far better under Coach Yo. There are key players, a successful system, and a mindset that have all translated to building a winning program. Let’s take a look at some of each, and don’t worry; I’m going to keep it high level.
The Key Players
Shakira Austin - C
Austin is a 6’5” center who was named first-team all-SEC for the second season in a row and is expected to be a top five WNBA draft pick. The Maryland transfer has been dominant since entering the SEC a year ago and is, without a doubt, the biggest piece of the puzzle. She has a silky smooth mid-range and can be an incredible presence down low. Occasionally she has had difficulty in big game matchups against other heralded bigs, but I’m very much picking nits there. She makes the engine go.
Madison Scott - PF
A year ago, Scott was named SEC Freshman of the Year, and while her second year in the league hasn’t been a major step up, she’s still a key cog. Offensively, she’s more of a put-back and fast break player, but it works for her, as she is averaging over 10 points per game on 50% shooting. Defensively, she’s magnificent, often being assigned to guard the best player on the other team with great success. Scott is expected to be an even more prominent piece next season, with Austin gone to the WNBA.
Lashonda Monk - PG
Monk transferred to Ole Miss this season, leaving East Carolina for a chance to make a difference for a team set up to contend for relevance. It took a while for her to really come into her own for the Rebels, but in the second half of the season she has really taken control of the team, and it’s paying off. Monk is averaging 9.6 points per game on a very efficient 42% clip, but her defense is what separates her from the pack. She’s averaging 2.1 steals per game with a season high of seven against Missouri. Occasionally on offense she gets a little reckless, which can lead to bad turnovers, but she’s a huge asset.
Angel Baker - SG
While Baker would never want to acknowledge this, the Rebels likely go as far as she goes this post-season. Named the SEC sixth woman of the year, Baker is shooting 32% from three, which is the best on the team. That gets at the problem this team has: it can’t really shoot all that well. That’s why Baker (and to a lesser extent Snudda Collins) is essential this offseason. It’s on them to keep defenses honest at the three point line when Shakira Austin gets the ball down low.
This team is designed to play in-your-face defense to wear teams down and force turnovers. It’s working, as the team averages 10 steals and 4.2 blocks per game. They also force shot clock violations and passes out of bounds on the reg. When their defense is working, it’s magnificent. When the other team is elite, however, and full of players who make excellent decisions under pressure, it crumbles. That’s when their inability to score efficiently comes back to bite them.
Lastly, Coach Yo has gotten this team to fully buy in to her mindset. She wants to dictate play and disrupt timing, forcing teams to improvise. Her team feasts on her energy and clearly succeeds because of it. While her unyielding commitment to putting the best defense she can on the floor may sacrifice some scoring on the other end, it defines the mindset she wants the team to have going into games. Be physical, dive for loose balls, get a hand on the ball whenever you can, and win.
You can catch the Rebels against Florida at 2:25pm today on SEC Network.