Mid-February is an optimal time for a college basketball team’s confidence to be ascending upward and that is exactly where Ole Miss’ is headed after its fourth straight win, an 75-65 home victory over Missouri to move to 18-7 on the year and 8-4 in league play.
Ole Miss turned the Tigers over 25 times and received the bulk of its scoring from sources it doesn’t usually rely on. Bruce Stevens led the team with 17 points. He made a trio of three pointers and grabbed four rebounds. When Stevens plays at that level, it dramatic alters the dynamic of this team and its ceiling.
“It makes us more of a worthy SEC and a team that will better in March because of it,” Kermit Davis said. “He has a physical presence. He can stretch it and go out and make a three. I thought every one of his shots, maybe only one wasn’t a great three, but he gave us a great presence.”
Stevens’ ability to shoot the basketball makes him a tough match up, particularly when Ole Miss goes small and a center draws Stevens as a defensive assignment. When he crashes the glass, the Rebels play well. It is truly that that simple of a correlation.
“Coach Davis keeps telling me they need me to rebound, grab offensive rebound and finish plays,” Stevens said. “It is just a matter of me listening to my teammates, staying on the same page and listening to the coaching staff.”
Freshman K.J. Buffen scored 14 points and grabbed four rebounds. The freshman has been more aggressive on both ends and seems to be coming into his own down the stretch of this season.
There is no question Ole Miss is a guard-oriented team. But it was able to win a game by double digits with Breein Tyree, Terence Davis and Devontae Shuler combining for just 35 points. The trio didn’t play poorly and the result more so speaks to the role players on this team becoming the best versions of themselves. This comes a game after Zach Naylor and Luis Rodriguez provided quality minutes down the stretch of a road win at Auburn, a game that saw Blake Hinson miss the game with the flu and Terence Davis become entangled in foul trouble.
It is somewhat baffling to watch what was a mentally fragile team a year ago — one comprised with essentially the exact same players as this year’s team —develop the mental fortitude it currently has and attain the confidence level it exudes. That isn’t a knock, either. In fact, it is the opposite. This Ole Miss team is tough. It is 4-2 in true road games and a last-second slip up at Florida from being 5-1. The team was awful on the road a year ago. The road struggles led to its early demise. Ole Miss wilted in the face of adversity last year on its way to a 12-20 record and a last place finish in the SEC. This season has been a different story. This team seems to thrive in adverse circumstances.
“Confidence comes from doing hard things over-and-over again,” Kermit Davis said. “It lends you with the tough situations in which you can play. That is what happened. When you win on the road it breeds unbelievable confidence. We are 4-2 on the road in the SEC. When a team knows it can go in any environment and play, that is a good thing. We aren’t there yet, but our team is playing and thinking it will win the game late.”
Tyree was tremendous in the road win against Auburn and made tough shots down the stretch in the win over Missouri. The Tigers hung around and wouldn’t concede to Ole Miss. Jordan Geist scored 23 and kept his team afloat when things weren’t going right, but Tyree made a couple crippling shots in the game’s waning minutes. He’s seen first hand the evolution of this team’s mental state.
“We know how to win on the road now, where last year we didn’t,” Tyree said. “We didn’t know how to make those winning plays and now we are. We are winning those possessions down the stretch and coming out on top.”
The Rebels have reeled off four straight wins after losing four straight. A year go, a couple losses spiraled into season-altering slides. This year, the Rebels didn’t flinch amid a four-game losing streak that was eroding its unexpected fast start.
“If our team won’t practice, won’t have a physicality to them and won’t respond to coaching, I will tell you we are spiraling,” Kermit Davis said. “But our team played. We practiced and paid attention to detail. We lost to Florida on a 25-footer and to Mississippi State who had been ranked all year. That is just life in the SEC. I didn’t foresee a four-game winning streak, but I knew our team would bounce back.”
No one could’ve foreseen Ole Miss being 8-4 in the SEC at this point in the season and having a more than a puncher’s chance at finishing fourth in the league to earn a double bye in the SEC Tournament. The Rebels were picked to finish last in the league, a deserving prognostication given the evidence from a year ago. But that is precisely where this team sits as it barrels down the home stretch of the season. Individual confidence is budding. The team is getting more consistent play from Buffen and Stevens. Luis Rodriguez is earning the trust of Kermit Davis. The collective confidence is rising as a result of all of that.
Ole Miss now heads to South Carolina on Tuesday for a crucial road game. The Rebels and Gamecocks are tied for fourth place. A lot is on the line and it will be an arduous task, but Ole Miss has proven multiple times that counting it is a foolish action. Aside from all of that, who would’ve imagined this team would’ve been playing meaningful games late into February?
“It is a big game,” Kermit Davis said. “There is a lot on the line.”
Photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics