A lot has happened in the three weeks since Ole Miss and Mississippi State last met. The Rebels went into Starkville and narrowly escaped with a massive road win that pulled them to 13-2 on the season and 3-0 in the SEC.
Ole Miss became a national story and one of the more pleasant surprises of the college basketball season after being picked last in the league in the preseason. The team has fallen on hard times since, losing four of its last five games including an overtime loss to Florida earlier this week in which it led by three points with eight seconds left. Kermit Davis elected not to foul as the Gators pushed the basketball up the court. That decision proved to be fatal as KeVaughn Allen drilled a contested three over the outstretched arm of K.J. Buffen to send the game into overtime. A 10-3 spurt from Florida to begin the overtime sunk Ole Miss and left it with a feeling of missed opportunity.
“I have played the last play over, whether to foul or not to foul, probably a million times the last two days really,” head coach Kermit Davis said. “I am a proponent of fouling up three. It was a just the time left, around nine seconds, and that you maybe foul right at the half court line. I am always suspect or fearful of fouling right at the half court line and then the guy goes right into his shot, and they give him three shots. If you foul right at the half court line, there are probably about five seconds left. Obviously, we elected not to foul. If I had to do it again, I would obviously foul since the guy made a 25-footer.”
Hindsight is 20-20 and Ole Miss is now left to deal with the result as it enters a match up in which both teams badly need a win. The Bulldogs are 3-4 in league play and coming off a loss at Alabama. Mississippi State has yet to find its footing on the road in the SEC play, and with Kentucky and LSU on the horizon can ill-afford a loss. The same could be said to some degree for Ole Miss, who has lost four of five and is in danger of losing four consecutive games. This is the first real adversity the team has faced this season following a 10-game winning streak that catapulted it into the national spotlight.
How will it respond?
“Just get back to doing the things we are used to doing,” Terence Davis said. “Have a competitive practice today. As a leader, I have to keep reminding guys that it is a long season and we have so much more to play for.”
What’s been the difference in the manner in which Ole Miss has played in the last couple of weeks as opposed to its winning streak? A number of different things. Some of it is simply regression to the mean. Remember, the Rebels were picked to finish last for a reason. Yes, it has talented, veteran guards. But it also has little depth and inconsistent post play as well as two true freshmen as major contributors. Some of it is simply the schedule. Ole Miss lost to LSU, who is 7-0 in conference play. It lost to an Alabama team that will likely end up in the NCAA Tournament and an Iowa State club that some think will win the Big 12 with Kansas struggling.
Some of it is also the Rebels not making shots at the rate they were making them earlier in the season, and Ole Miss has struggled to find other consistent sources of offense when its perimeter jump shots are not falling. The dip in shooting percentage is also a bit of regression to the mean as the team was shooting at mark of over 50 percent from the field per game. But it is also in part due to decision making from the guards.
“When I make a bad decision, it is on me, it’s my fault,” Terence Davis said. “Most of the time it is me coming off ball screens and picking my dribble up. Me and Coach Davis have talked about it. It is something I have to get better at, keeping my dribble alive. I sometimes want to get it up the floor to get it moving instead of taking one more extra dribble or two to scan the floor and see where my next pass is going.”
In some respects, the last time these two teams met desperation for a win led to a chippy and hotly contested game. Mississippi State was trying to avoid to falling to 0-2 to begin conference play and Ole Miss brimming with momentum and confidence as it capped a 2-0 week against ranked teams, a week that vaulted the program into the limelight. The Pavilion is sold out and the Rebels will have a chance to right the ship. The schedule becomes friendly for a two week period following the game and Saturday is a chance for Ole Miss to prevent this current skid from turning into a irrecoverable slide.