COLUMBIA — Ole Miss went through practice at Colonial Life Arena on Thursday, less than 24 hours away from taking an unlikely stage in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament against Oklahoma.
The Rebels weren’t supposed to be here, picked last in the SEC coming into the year. They likely may not be here if not for the play of senior Bruce Stevens over the last month. One of the many reasons this team was projected at the bottom of a loaded conference is its lack of depth, particularly in the post.
Stevens and Dominik Olejniczak comprise Ole Miss’ proverbial front line in the front court, with quite literally no reinforcements, aside from gambling on K.J. Buffen to tread water in the post for short stretches. The seven-foot Olejniczak often struggles to defend opposing forwards that are athletic and can stretch defenders on the perimeter. An opposing big that can play 17-20 feet away from the basket, knock down the occasional jump shot or put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, usually spells trouble for Olejniczak and Ole Miss. As the Rebels waded deeper into SEC play, that type of match up became more frequent. Its put an increased workload on the smaller, more nimble Stevens.
In the last month, Stevens has answered the call and the dynamic of Ole Miss’ team has changed as well as its ceiling. He’s played 20 plus minutes in 12 of 19 SEC games compared to just four times in the non-conference slate. Since the beginning of February, Stevens is averaging 8.9 points and 22 minutes per game. He recorded a double-double in the loss to Tennessee and has played nearly 28 minutes per game the last five games.
Outside of the minutes logged, Stevens’ stat line may not necessarily indicate an uptick in performance. But 28 minutes per game the last five games is no small feat for a guy who struggled to get in shape when he arrived on campus in 2017 from Jones Junior College. Stevens’ ability to simply be on the floor has helped Ole Miss mask Olejniczak’s inability to make an impact against teams with undersized forwards.
That is the scouting report on Oklahoma’s big men to a tee — undersized, athletic forwards like 6-foot-7 Kristian Doolittle and 6-foot-9 Brady Manek, who can both shoot enough to keep defenders honest and are skilled off the bounce.
“They also exploit mismatches very well,” Breein Tyree said. “All their players from one to five can bring down the ball and dribble the ball. They do a lot of isolation. We just need to guard the ball, stay in front of our men, stay second in the air, be physical with them and rebound the ball, and I think we should be fine.”
Stevens will likely see heavy minutes in the game on Friday, with Ole Miss trying to carve out some sort of role for Olejniczak, likely protecting him by zoning when he is on the floor, hoping to get 10-12 good minutes to allow Stevens to rest.
“(Stevens) is a critical match up for us tomorrow,” Kermit Davis said. “Doolittle is an undersized four-man and he plays the the five, so he gets good match ups. Can Bruce and Dom, especially Bruce, guard him at 17 feet in isolation that Long (Kruger) puts him in. That is a big key.”
Stevens’ effort on the defensive end has been significantly better the last month in the twilight hours of his career. There was never a question as to whether Stevens was the best offensive post player Ole Miss had on the roster. Stevens can stretch the floor, knock down perimeter jump shots and get looks around the rim. The defensive liability he has been in the past is what has put Davis in a quandary. His improvement in that area is reflected in the minutes he has played down the stretch. He will be a critical match up offensively as well.
“Can we throw the ball to Bruce, pick up fouls, and make guys guard him around the goal?,” Davis said. “We know he can pick-and-pop and shoot goals. If us going forward, if we’re going to have some success in this tournament, he’s going to have to be a big part of it.”
Getting Stevens in pick-and-roll situations on the perimeter has been the primary way Davis has gotten his senior forward involved in the offense. It sounds like the will be more of an emphasis on getting Stevens the ball in and around the paint to get some of Oklahoma’s smaller bigs in foul trouble.
“Their big guys can score,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said. “Looked like they’re a little more comfortable pick-and-pop, can score inside.”
Tipoff on Friday is slated for 11:40 A.M. CT.