A 10-2 mark in non-conference play has brought increased intrigue to this Ole Miss team as it begins its SEC season on Saturday in Nashville against Vanderbilt.
There are still plenty of questions surrounding this group. What is to be made of this fast start and will it translate to success in a deep SEC? Will the Rebels get adequate post play to a level that allows them to win games? How will a seemingly-improved team defensively fare against steeper competition?
The lone constant is this: Ole Miss has a trio of veteran guards in Terence Davis, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler that will give the team a chance in most games. All three have been through league play before, which should help considering the Rebels have a couple of young pieces who have not, like freshmen K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson.
Ole Miss didn’t win a road game until March last season, a crucial factor in why the team came apart at the seams in early February. Tyree thinks this team is better equipped to win on the road in the SEC.
“The preparation and planning we put in every day in practice makes us ready,” Tyree said. “It helps when you know what you are supposed to be doing, especially on the defensive end when you are playing on the road with a bunch of noise. I would say preparation is the biggest thing.”
Tyree said having a defensive-minded coach in Kermit Davis makes the preparation easier. The scouting reports are more detailed and easier to digest. Tyree thinks the team feels more prepared when it runs onto the court before tipoff than it did a year ago.
“It is the whole culture change,” Tyree said. “Even last year, we had a great team last year. It is the same talent. Give credit to Coach and his planning he uses going into games. If you watch the film, you can see with some of that in the plays we execute, how we guard different things and our communication with each other.”
So what is Ole Miss facing in its SEC opener? A team trying to put the pieces back together after an early-season injury disrupted its cohesion.
Vanderbilt is without undoubtedly its best player in point guard Darius Garland, a projected lottery pick who tore his meniscus in his left knee in a game against Kent State in November. The Commodores struggled in the immediate aftermath, but have again found their footing. Vanderbilt comes into the game having won four of its last five, including a win over a ranked Arizona State team and its one loss coming at Kansas State.
“They’re getting great point guard play again,” Kermit Davis said. “Saben Lee is playing a good as anyone in the league, very explosive, makes some unbelievably athletic plays at the rim. It did hurt them, they lost the game (Garland) got hurt in against Kent State. You can imagine, it’s the whole building. But they have rebounded really well since then.”
Lee is averaging 12.3 points per game, just under four assists and 2.8 turnovers per game. Four Commodores are averaging double figures in Garland’s absence. There is still plenty of talent on the floor. Simisola Shittu, a five-star forward, is a load to handle in the low block at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds. He is averaging 14.4 points and just under eight rebounds per game. The post is Ole Miss’ most glaring weakness and Shittu is more than capable of causing issues for the Rebels on Saturday.
— Freshman guard Franco Miller will not play this season, Kermit Davis said on Thursday. Miller had been rehabbing a knee injury and was thought to be nearing a return when he came down awkwardly on the knee during warmups before the Rebels played Middle Tennessee State in Nashville on December 21. Miller has a stress fracture in the knee cap and has again been completely shut down from basketball activities for the foreseeable future. Davis envisioned a scenario that Miller could return to basketball-related activities in 4-6 weeks.
How does this impact the Rebels? It eliminates an option to build bench depth, something Kermit Davis has been clamoring for over a month. JUCU transfers Brian Halums and Zach Naylor, along with freshman Luis Rodriguez have been the three guys Davis has zeroed in on to pad depth on the bench, but limited progress has been made in that regard.
“No one will put their head in front of the other two,” Kermit Davis said. “I thought Zach Naylor made some progress in the Florida Gulf Coast game, but then he comes back and doesn’t practice great. His energy level is not great. Luis Rodriguez is going through a learning curve. We like his physicality and his toughness. Brian Halums has had some injuries and some setbacks. We need some of those guys. We are still in the same spot. We need one of those guys to beat the other out.”
Tipoff on Saturday is set for 7:30 P.M.