COLUMBIA, SC —It was a flameout to a season that should largely be considered a success.
The 208-19 Ole Miss Rebels undoubtedly overachieved, but wrote a somber final chapter in a 95-72 loss to Oklahoma that highlighted the team’s most fatal flaws.
The overarching concern for the Rebels heading into the season was its fragile frontline. Inconsistency from Dominik Olejniczak and Bruce Stevens, along with no depth behind them, compound the worry. Oklahoma torched the two in what as a disastrous match up. The Sooners’ forwards are long, athletic and drew Ole Miss’ big men out to the perimeter, beating them soundly and repeatedly. Kristian Doolittle had 19 points. Brady Manek had 18. The Rebels struggled with Oklahoma’s bigger guards. Six-foot-six Rashard Odomes was a nightmarish match up for Ole Miss. He had 20 points, as did Christian James.
Kermit Davis called timeout just 80 seconds into the game after two Sooners’ baskets. Dominik Olejniczak drew a last-minute start over Bruce Stevens. Both struggled mightily, but after two quick defensive lapses Olejniczak was substituted out for Stevens. The occurrence foreshadowed the impending doom.
“When I started watching Oklahoma, I knew within the first five minutes that it was going to be a problem,” Kermit Davis said. “We are playing two five men, and with Doolittle, you are trying to guard him in wide post areas at 15-17 feet. What they do, they have big guards. James, Odomes are big, physical guards. They create match up problems at 16-17 feet. It is not something we have been great at all year, but we got exploited there today.”
Davis paced the sidelines early the game as the Rebels fell into a double-digit hole, imploring his team to give effort on the defensive end and play with energy, a strange thing for a coach to have to do in an NCAA Tournament game. That was another flaw of this team. It didn’t always play with good body language. The defensive effort was often sporadic. This team was not a good defensive team in the lens of ability and could ill-afford to have effort contribute to its struggles in that regard.
“I was trying to get our guys attention to kind of settle in,” Kermit Davis said. “With this team, from an emotional standpoint, it was almost like we kind of got it together at Missouri to get us in the tournament. I think the Tennessee and Kentucky games, we played as well as we could’ve. They were one possession losses at home and the crowd was unbelievable. Then with Alabama, we were up 16 points. Emotionally, I just think it kind of took its toll.”
Oklahoma made 12 of its first 16 shots, largely do to little resistance offered from Ole Miss. The Rebels fell behind by 20 in the first half and never recovered.
“They got the ball down low, in the paint more,” Bruce Stevens said. “We didn’t come out physical enough.”
What Stevens alluded to was another flaw of this team. It didn’t have the physicality and the toughness needed to win games on the glass and keep opponents away from the rim. Oklahoma scored 44 paint points. It required only 13 three-point shots, making six. It all added up to a blistering defeat.
With all of that said, as flawed as this team was, the final chapter shouldn’t blind people from the overwhelming success this team had. Ole Miss was predicted last in the SEC for the aforementioned issues this team had. It also had a new coach, no depth on the roster as a whole and played in a loaded conference. The Rebels won 20 games, finished in the top half of the league and posted an above .500 record in the same league most thought they would drown in.
Look at like purchasing a home: Kermit Davis moved into a new house, found some stuff in the attic left by the previous owner and turned it into an unexpected profit at the nearest pawn shop. Davis took a team with no depth, post presence, three high level guards and two freshmen to the NCAA Tournament in year one of what was thought to be a multi-year colonoscopy of a reeling program that finished last in the SEC in year one.
“We weren’t projected to be here,” Blake Hinson said. “That shows the resiliency of this team. It shows are fight and determination.”
Kermit Davis was working with a bunch of pieces that didn’t necessarily fit. He wasn’t able to mold this team in his image. That isn’t a knock on him. He won SEC Coach of the Year for a reason. Molding this team into what he wants his program to look like wasn’t possible with the way it was constructed. He will tell you as much.
“It didn’t ever really look like what I wanted it to look like,” Kermit Davis said. “I was really proud of the improvement we made. But for us to be a contender in the SEC, bodies have to change. We have to build a lot better depth. There is still a lot for us to do.”
This team will look drastically different next season and more like what Kermit Davis envisions. But it shouldn’t go unsaid that he took the pieces handed to him and molded it into a functioning unit that exceeded all operational expectations. Each individual part became the best version themselves.
What did this year do? Well, to start, it issued a proper send off for Terence Davis, a guy that kicked the tires on pro basketball last offseason. No one would’ve blamed him for leaving what appeared to be a sinking ship. In November, it looked certain Terence Davis would go his entire career without playing an NCAA Tournament game. He was able to add that badge to a remarkable career. He arrived at Ole Miss as a raw talent with freakish athleticism, but was a bit of a loose cannon. He left as an All-SEC Player and a remarkable young man. Davis was always polite and honest with the media. He became an emotional leader of on a team that defied all odds. Kermit Davis told Terence the first time they met that 2018-19 wouldn’t be a rebuilding year, citing it was unfair to the senior. Together, they delivered on what seemed like an next to impossible declaration.
“This doesn’t define who we are,” Kermit Davis said. “The progress we made I am so proud of these guys. They were unbelievable all year long.”
What did this year do? It expedited what was seen as a long-term rebuild. Kermit Davis mentioned the abundance of work left to do in order to mold this program into a contender. If he does indeed accomplish that goal, he will look back at year one and view it as making the entire process a hell of a lot easier.
“It expedited fan interest,” Kermit Davis said. I think it hopefully expedited recruiting from a national level. Not from what people saw today, but just from being in the Tournament, our fan base and playing on national television. We have a lot of work and a lot of holes to fill. We have to get guys better, but it has sped up the process.”
This was a somber exit and one that shed light on the blemishes this team bore. But it shouldn’t detract from the larger picture. This season was a tremendous success that quite literally no one saw coming. The 2018-19 Ole Miss Rebels overachieved, despite a writing dull final chapter.
photo credit: Joshua McCoy Ole Miss Athletics