A week of opportunity and challenge begins for Ole Miss against Auburn

Ole Miss is going to get a taste of how difficult the SEC with a two-game slate against top 15 teams this week, beginning with10th-ranked Auburn on Wednesday and then a road game at 14th-ranked Mississippi State on Saturday.

Wednesday night’s game against the Tigers is an interesting opportunity for this team in a couple different capacities. It’s a chance to see how far this team has progressed and where it stacks up against what is thought to be the second best team in the conference behind Tennessee, one that Kermit Davis thinks has a legitimate chance to reach college basketball’s grandest stage.

“It looks like a team that could play in the Final Four,” Kermit Davis said. “They have depth, great experienced guards and are really athletic. They plan an unconventional style in some ways that causes other teams problems.”

It’s also an opportunity to generate momentum and interest amongst Ole Miss’ fan base, one that is certainly looking to latch onto a winner at this point. The Rebels are riding an eight-game winning streak and Saturday’s win at Vanderbilt matched the 2017 team’s total road wins for the season. Most prognosticators didn’t have this team sitting at 11-2 at this point and it is beginning to generate a buzz.

“It should be a good atmosphere,” freshman Blake Hinson said. “Ole Miss is excited about basketball and the fans have shown a lot of love this year. I expect it to be electric.”

And of course, most obviously it offers an opportunity for Ole Miss to start 2-0 in the SEC. Auburn features a pair of quick, veteran guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. The Tigers also hit the glass hard, leading the SEC in offensive rebounding at 15.4 per game.

“I am big on extra possessions and they lead in every extra possession category in the SEC,” Kermit Davis said. “Steals, blocks, turnover margin and offensive rebounding they lead in. All of those things get you extra possessions and they lead in all of them, so we are going to have our hands full from a physical standpoint in rebounding the ball.”

The story of Ole Miss’ road win at Vanderbilt was undoubtedly the 31-point performance from junior guard Breein Tyree. But what was lost in it, and has been for most of this season is the play of sophomore Devontae Shuler, who’s move to point guard has allowed Tyree to play off the ball. Ole Miss is undoubtedly better when Tyree plays off the ball. He possesses one of the better mid-range games in college basketball and is explosive off the bounce. It is easier for the Rebels to run offense for Tyree when he plays on the wing. Shuler’s ability to play point guard efficiently affords them the opportunity to do so. Freshman Franco Miller — a player Kermit Davis thought would compete for the starting point guard job and at worst become the backup — is out for the season with a knee injury, making Shuler’s role even more invaluable.

“He has been safe with the ball,” Kermit Davis “The last five games has been maybe three-and-a-half to one (assist-to-turnover ratio). We had some guys open in some set plays the other night that he didn’t pull the trigger on because he is trying to be safe. That is not a bad thing for Devontae. He is probably the most valuable player on our team because we do not have a lot of depth behind him.”

Ole Miss will need to take care of the ball against an Auburn team that leads the league in steals per game. 

This week is a consequential one for Ole Miss. With that said, it won’t save or sink it by any means. But it is an opportunity to gauge where this team fits in the landscape of a deep SEC. There is a lot of season left and this isn’t anywhere near the most important week by any stretch, but it could end up being the most telling. 

“I always tell them to be the best version of yourself,” Kermit Davis said. “Let them see the best version of us. Don’t try to do things we haven’t done. We did that a little bit early against Vanderbilt. I am really looking forward to seeing the crowd. I am looking forward to a home-court advantage against a top 10 or 12 team on national TV. It doesn’t get any better than that this early in the year.”