Shuler, Buffen lead Rebels to season-opening win over Arkansas State

Photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss dismantled Arkansas State in a 71-43 season-opening win at The Pavilion on Friday evening.

Junior point guard Devontae Shuler dominated the basketball game on both ends, scoring 20 points on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting with two steals and an assist. Shuler wreaked havoc in the Red Wolves’ half-court offense, thwarting their ability to get into sets and run cohesive offense.

“He dominated the ball, he disrupted offense even when he didn’t get his hands on balls and made them start higher,” head coach Kermit Davis said. “He ran our team. He looked like an experienced guard. He played like the most experienced guy on the floor.”

K.J. Buffen scored 16 points and snared nine rebounds. After a strong performance in the team’s exhibition game against Mississippi College on Tuesday night, Buffen once again looked like a more mature, stronger player. He got to the rim with ease and was menacing in the paint.

“He is doing what he does in practice and putting it into the game,” Davis said. “He owns everything. He is coachable. He owns everything and has grown up so much in a year. It is great to see that kind of confidence.”

Arkansas State is an inferior opponent and Ole Miss handled them appropriately. The Rebels played a number of different guys — 13 total — and ran out a number of different lineups. 

Here are some observations from the win:

—Ole Miss will be a better team in the front court than it was a season ago. Yes, that a low bar to jump from a weakness that killed the Rebels last season. But with Khadim Sy, Sammy Hunter and Carlos Curry looking capable of contributing, this group will be more versatile and offer better rim protection. Buffen and Hinson have the ability to play in the post for short spurts too. 

 Hinson, who has not practiced in a full capacity since August, has been sidelined with a blood disorder. The team is hopeful he will be cleared for contact on November 16 after a doctor’s appointment and will be ready to play at the end of the month.

— When Ole Miss went on a 12-0 run in the early minutes of the game to create its initial separation on the scoreboard, Davis boasted a lineup of Shuler, Tyree, Austin Crowley and Sammy Hunter. Relatively speaking, that is about as small of a lineup as the Rebels can play and it worked quite well. It might be nothing, but it is something to keep an eye on going forward, at least until Blake Hinson returns near the end of the month.

“Before Blake got hurt, we were really thinking there would be times we would play Blake at the four and K.J. at the five,” Davis said. “They are experienced guys that know how to run offense. We miss Blake. I thought Austin came in and gave us a big lift. At that time, we played faster in transition.”

— Buffen is roughly 15 pounds heavier, most of it muscle, and it is paying dividends for him early on. He is better equipped to get to the rim through contact and finish. He had 16 points and nine rebounds in this one after scoring 17 in the exhibition. The scoring this team lost with the departure of Terence Davis is going to have to be made up collectively. Buffen, along with a an uptick from Shuler, appear to the the likely sources. 

— Shuler looks more confident than he did last season. He’s healthier, too, after a lingering foot injury hampered him at times last season. Shuler was the most invaluable piece to that unlikely NCAA Tournament squad last season when he made the move to point guard. He looked comfortable running the offense in this game.

“I feel like there will be many more games where I score 20 or more, along with Breein. He didn’t shoot the ball well tonight but we know what we are capable of,” Shuler said. 

— After a rough performance in the exhibition in which Davis was not pleased with his rebounding prowess, Luis Rodriguez fared better in that regard, yanking six rebounds. He had five points and was a 2-of-8 from the field. Rodriguez took a couple off ill-advised perimeter jump shots that frustrated Davis, but the sophomore could potentially prove to be an invaluable defensive piece for this team with his length and athleticism. Rodriguez was the guy this offseason that the staff regularly lauded for his work ethic and evolution as a player. It showed in flashes on this night.

“I thought he guarded better and had more of a physical presence,” Davis said. “He is a good shooter and is only going to continue to get better.”

  Breein Tyree had a rough night shooting the basketball. He finished 2-of-9 from the field, 1—of-7 from three-point range for six total points. He had four assists. For a guy who averaged 17 points per game a season ago, it is likely just an off night. There are 30 more of these things, afterall.  Davis thought Tyree was settling offensively and coaxed him toward putting the ball on the floor more often to get to the rim and set up what is one of the better mid-range games in the SEC.

“The last person I am worried about on our team right now is Breein,” Davis said.

Ole Miss returns to action Tuesday evening with a home game against Norfolk State. Tipoff is slated for 6:30 P.M.