One final non-conference game against Florida Gulf Coast looms for Ole Miss on Saturday before the proverbial rubber meets the road for a team that will likely enter SEC play with a 10-2 record.
By most measures, Ole Miss is ahead of schedule under first-year head coach Kermit Davis. The Rebels boast a win over Baylor, played a competitive game at Butler in which they led late in the second half and won a true road game at Illinois State — a feat not accomplished until March last season.
But the Southeastern Conference is an entirely different animal. Ole Miss was picked to finished last in a loaded SEC in the preseason. It’s become clear that will likely not be the case, but the league is as deep and talented as it’s been in over a decade. The Rebels are an intriguing team with a trio of experienced guards that can fill it up offensively. Breein Tyree leads the team in scoring with 17.6 points per game, Terence Davis is averaging right and 15 and sophomore Devontae Shuler is good for just over 10 points per game. Freshmen K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson are coming along nicely but will likely hit some form of a freshman wall as the season churns on.
With all of that said, what is Ole Miss’ most pressing issue heading into league play? It is undoubtedly the level of play and consistency — or lack thereof —the team is getting in the post. Senior forward Bruce Stevens can stretch the floor with his shooting ability, but is a defensive liability in the post. Seven-foot center Dominik Olejniczak has shown flashes of being the rim protector this team will need him to be to win games in the SEC, but hasn’t been consistent, particularly rebounding the basketball and has struggled to put things together on the offensive end.
“Both of those guys are splitting time and when you look at the 40 minute total, he and Bruce have good stats,” Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis said. “Bruce is going to have to keep getting better defensively. But as you guys know, that area, when we get into league play and we start going against the guys in this league, that area is going to have to get better.”
Olejniczak has struggled with confidence in the past, but says it is getting easier to stay confident as he gets deeper into his second year at Ole Miss. Last year was a rude awakening for the now junior from Poland as the speed and physicality of low-post players in the SEC overwhelmed him at times.
“Experience is everything,” Olejniczak said. “We know what is coming, how to prepare and what to expect.”
Olejniczak knows Ole Miss’ level success hinges greatly on the quality of play he and Stevens offer in the post.
“We know we have a really big role here,” Olejniczak. “We compete each day in practice to try to make each other better. We know how big of a role we will play in this.”
Stevens is averaging 9.7 points per game and is good for about four-and-a-half rebounds. Olejniczak is averaging just over six points per game and three rebounds. Both of those will need to soar upward for Ole Miss to be successful in league play, particularly rebounding the ball.
“(Olejniczak) has got to be able to go from one side of the rim to the other side of the rim whether it is offensive or defensive rebounding,” Kermit Davis said. “His presence offensively is getting better.”
Stevens and Olejniczak have gotten a brief prelude to what they’ll face in the final nine weeks of the season. Baylor ran out a couple of long, athletic big men that posed a challenge. Butler was incredibly physical in the post despite not being quite as quick and athletic as a typical SEC forward. Cincinnati was similar to Baylor in length and athleticism. The two combined for 14 points and five rebounds against the Cincinnati, Stevens put up 17 and grabbed eight boards in the win over Baylor (Olejniczak did not score in seven minutes), and both struggled mightily against Butler to the tune of a combined eight points and three rebounds in 29 minutes.
The two are coming off one of their better games collectively in a win over Middle Tennessee State. Olejeniczak scored 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting and grabbed three rebounds. Stevens added 12 points and snared four rebounds.
Ineffective play from the duo will put Ole Miss in quite the quandary. Buffen and Hinson are lengthy, athletic guys that can play on the perimeter and in the post for short stretches, but are not strong enough physically at this point in their careers to handle the physical nature of playing on the low block in the SEC. They will be able to eventually, but it’s a far-fetched request as freshmen. Stevens’ and Olejniczak’s level of play will more directly equate to success or failure as a result.
“I am junior right now, should be a senior but I sat out one year,” Olejniczak said. “You get confident with more experience. If you have been there before, you get more comfortable. That is how it is.”