When Ole Miss took a trip up to Canada in June to play exhibition games against Canadien universities, the thought of the Rebels running through their nonconference slate at 10-2 would’ve not only seemed far-fetched in Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis’ mind, it would bordered on irrational. But that is exactly where this team sits after an 87-57 drubbing of Florida Gulf Coast to cap a perfect 6-0 month of December.
Terence Davis scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds. Breein Tyree added 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
“Record-wise, if someone had said we would be 10-2 after being down 27 to the Ottawa Gee-Gee’s I would have said you are crazy,” Kermit Davis said. “We’ve made progress since then. What I like about our team is that we are improving. We are getting better. Our team has got to continue to make progress over the next two months. I like where our team is. We know how good this league is. We know how difficult Saturday is going to be.”
Ole Miss will take its 10-2 record to Nashville next Saturday to face Vanderbilt to open SEC play. With a trio of experienced guards that can score in bunches and two young, versatile pieces in K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson, the Rebels are an intriguing team. Where does that slot the Rebels in the landscape of a loaded SEC? That remains to be seen. The team struggles at times to get consistent play in the post from Dominik Olejniczak and Bruce Stevens, though Kermit Davis thinks both are improving. That was the big question mark on this team entering the season. It’s the area will most directly correlate to the level of success Ole Miss has in league play.
“I think they are getting better, I really do,” Kermit Davis said. “We’ve experimented a little bit with playing both of those guys together. Defensively is where one of them will have to guard a 6-foot-7 live forward. That is something we have looked at. I thought Dom played well defensively today. He changed a lot of shots. I was really pleased with him. Bruce is starting to settle in. Each of those guys gives you a little different aspect at the same position.”
Kermit Davis wants to see both of them rebound the basketball better, a gripe that extends beyond those two to the entire team, but particularly Olejniczak and Stevens. The former pulled 5 rebounds in the win over the Eagles and the latter snared four. Olejniczak scored one basket and took just two shots. Stevens scored 11 points on an efficient 4-of-5 shooting.
Will the play in the post be adequate enough to have this team in the NCAA Tournament conversation in March? Who knows. But Tyree, Davis and Shuler certainly give them a chance make the Rebels an intriguing team to keep an eye on. All three know the rigors of the SEC and all three remember the frustration of a 12-win season a year ago.
“I think we are prepared,” Terence Davis said. “Coach Davis challenges us each day to keep getting better. I think we are prepared. This team, I feel like there are a few guys that know we are prepared, but some have not been on that stage yet. They just have to come into with confidence. You have some leaders that have been there before. Our practices say it all.”
By most measures, Ole Miss is ahead of schedule. It has played above expectations to this point considering the group was projected to finish last in the SEC. The team moves the ball well on offense and general takes smart, efficient shots. The Rebels had 22 assists on 31 made baskets on Saturday and they’ve improved dramatically on the defensive end. Defense is the staple of Kermit Davis’ program. Ole Miss still has lapses and isn’t where Davis would like them to be, but they are improving quickly.
So, how equipped is this team to compete in the SEC? We will begin to know the answer to that question at 7:30 P.M. next Saturday in Nashville.
“Since we got the job, I’ve told them from the first day we are trying to be built to win games on the road in the SEC,” Kermit Davis said. “The toughness, the different things you have to do. It is exciting.”
— K.J. Buffen left the game midway through the second half with an ankle injury
— Devontae Shuler suffered some mild cramping
— Blake Hinson suffered a bruised thigh. None of the three injuries are thought to be serious and Kermit Davis thinks all three will likely return to practice next week.