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When is a visit to Ole Miss not a trap game?

Missouri is in position to contend for a double-bye in the SEC tournament, but the Rebels could blow up that plan.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Last Wednesday, Missouri appeared doomed: visiting Alabama with eight scholarship players, mired in a three-game skid and sliding off the NCAA tournament bubble.

Six days later, the Tigers trek to Ole Miss riding a two-game win streak. On Monday, bracket forecasts proved sunny. And it gets better. If KenPom’s win expectancies hold up this week, Cuonzo Martin’s crew could find itself in fourth place at week’s end.

Projected SEC Standings: Feb. 3 to Feb. 9

Current Seed Team W L Expected W Expected L
Current Seed Team W L Expected W Expected L
1 Auburn 9 1 11 1
2 Tennessee 7 3 9 3
4 Florida 6 4 8 4
7 Missouri 5 5 7 5
3 Alabama 6 4 6 6
5 Kentucky 6 4 6 6
6 Mississippi State 5 5 6 6
11 Arkansas 4 6 6 6
8 LSU 4 6 5 7
9 Texas A&M 4 6 5 7
10 Georgia 4 6 4 8
12 South Carolina 4 6 4 8
13 Ole Miss 4 6 4 8
14 Vanderbilt 2 8 3 9

The spoils? A double-bye in the SEC tournament, which just happens to be an easy two-hour commute east on Interstate 70. Nothing like prepping in your home gym, sleeping in your own bed and then a short jaunt to set up a three-game run in St. Louis.

OK, so I’m getting ahead of myself.

For all its gumption, MU is still an undermanned group.

At some juncture, Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon will regress to the mean. How far? We don’t know. Kevin Puryear may lose the scent that he uses to track down 50-50 balls. And Cullen VanLeer’s ability to fill in the statistical margins of the box score as a ball mover and be covered up on the defensive end may reach the end of its half-life.

It would only be fitting for it to occur against the Ole Miss Rebels and coach Andy Kennedy, a program whose ethos is a trap game.

Back in October, Sam Snelling detailed how perennially underrated Kennedy’s program is by analysts, finishing better than .500 in SEC over the last five seasons. In that span, the Rebels made two NCAA tournament trips for a program, a major feat for a school with just six appearances in its history before Kennedy arrived.

The powers that be, though, still don’t seem sold on their man. A.D. Ross Bjork passed on extending Kennedy’s deal last spring. And it was only two years that the school replaced the Tad Pad with the luxurious, $96.5 million environs of The Pavilion — finally investing in a high-major program that as recently as 2011 spent less than $2.5 million on its operations, according to data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.

Keep this in mind, too: Kennedy has kept the Rebels competitive without a future NBA player ever gracing his roster. Given the program’s history, location and, until 2016, lackluster facilities, it’s not surprising top-flight recruits weren’t flocking to Oxford. Kennedy has signed just four top-100 prospects in his tenure, the last of which was Anthony Perez (No. 95) back in 2012. His best players — Marshall Henderson and Stefan Moody — have been mined from the JUCO ranks or arrived as transfers.

This season was supposed to be different.

The Rebels brought back four starters, including one of the SEC’s better wing tandems of Deandre Burnett and Terrence Davis. Point guard Breein Tyree had shown potential down the stretch last season. The Rebels also reeled in a nice freshman prospect in Devontae Shule and a Markell Crawford, a graduate transfer out of Memphis. Up front, JUCO All-American Bruce Stevens arrived to bolster a rotation of sophomore Marcanvis Hymon and senior Justas Furmanavicius.

The Rebels’ backcourt-driven offense has lived up to its potential, but a defense sitting at 183rd in adjusted efficiency kneecapped NCAA tournament hopes after losses to Illinois State, South Dakota State, Virginia Tech and Middle Tennessee. In SEC play, Ole Miss picked off Florida and Alabama, but the program is still on track for the 13th seed at the conference tournament.

And with a win expectancy of just 54 percent, Mizzou’s looking at a tilt that’s a toss-up.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tempo | Ole Miss ranks 138th in adjusted tempo, averaging 69.5 possessions per game, according to KenPom. The Rebels’ transition game is also pedestrian, ranking 161st nationally and averaging 13.6 possessions. Assuming Missouri values the basketball, which is a rhetorical question at this juncture, the pace should be to the Tigers’ liking.

Tale of the Tape | There’s a lot of red pixels in the column outlining Ole Miss’ defense. The Rebels don’t generate a ton of takeaways, have a penchant for giving up second possessions, struggle to defend the 3-point line and send foes to the charity stripe. Sounds great if you’re Missouri. On the defensive end, Mizzou is again facing an opponent that’s average trying to generate points against a set defense. After an atrocious second half in Starkville, the Tigers’ team defense has been stellar its last two outings against backcourts that are better suited for transition-based attacks. If Ole Miss can’t run, you like the Tigers’ chances to limit them to one-and-done trips.

The Zones | The Rebels rank sixth for adjusted offensive efficiency during SEC play. But their zone chart doesn’t reflect an offense that punishes you at the rim (50.4 percent) or behind the arc (31.4 percent). Ole Miss fills in the gap by getting to the free-throw line and finding some production on second-chance points.

Synergy Sports

X-Factor // Offensive rebounding | Missouri’s frontline owns a distinct size advantage, but Ole Miss’ bigs in Stevens (6-foot-7) and Hymon (6-7) are active in tracking down misses. Keep an eye on Burnett, too, who leads the Rebels in defensive rebounding percentage and whether it translates on the other end. By controlling the backboards, MU can turn also turn off a spigot supplying scoring chances for Hymon, Furmanavicius and Dominik Olejniczak.

Matchups | The Rebels don’t lack for options on the perimeter, and entering the year, we thought Burnett and Davis could be one of the league’s more underrated duos. Burnett’s 3-point shooting and improved passing warrant praise, but Davis hasn’t been nearly as good in the halfcourt. The Tigers’ offense is still reliant on jump-shooting, and Ole Miss does struggle at times to close down shooters. That being said, the Rebels are more vulnerable when they try to defend post-ups (No. 283 nationally), which might lead to Mizzou to funnel the ball to Tilmon and Porter and play inside-out.

  • PG: Breein Tyree vs. Kassius Robertson I Tyree’s skills are better suited to playing in the open floor. Against a set defense, the sophomore is mediocre in pick-and-rolls (0.637 PPP). Instead, he’s deadly on catch-and-shoot jumpers (1.442 PPP), according to Synergy Sports. Keep an eye on whether Tyree matches up with Robertson defensively, too. Tyree is one of the SEC’s best at navigating pick-and-rolls, handoffs and ball-screens. With Robertson pressed into duty at lead guard, those actions are how Mizzou tries to get him airspace. If Tyree can close down that space and make Robertson take contested looks, it puts the onus on Barnett to remain engaged for 40 minutes.
  • G: Deandre Burnett vs. Cullen VanLeer | To be clear: I’m using the starting lineup from the last game, not advocating for VanLeer to draw the man who generates 25 percent of Ole Miss’ offense. In the half court, you’ll see the Miami transfer reject a pick-and-roll and still find a path to the rim for quality shots. When Barnett does use a pick, he’s actually a better distributor, finding shooters for quality catch-and-shoots (1.155 PPP) and roll men luke Hymon filling voids. Defensively, if he draws Barnett, it’ll be imperative he finds the Tigers guard in transition and make take shots on the move.
  • WING: Terence Davis vs. Jordan Barnett | If Burnett is the half-court catalyst, that makes Davis the primer in transition. His volume of possessions and efficiency (1.145 PPP) in the open floor put him in the same company as Mustapha Heron, Hamidou Diallo and Daryl Macon. But when Ole Miss pulls the ball out and tries to run offense, Davis’ best play spotting up (1.243 PPP). The advice remains the same if he’s matched on Barnett, but Davis needs to keep in mind that Barnett is adept at catching, ripping and going to his right. Finally, whether it’s Davis or Burnett, a common problem is defenders losing Barnett when he’s stationed in a corner. Missouri will run a side P&R to pull Barnett’s defender into help position, allowing Jordan to back cut the baseline.
  • CF: Bruce Stevens vs. Kevin Puryear | Stevens was the nation’s No. 6 JUCO prospect, giving the Rebels size and the ability to space the floor by stretching his shooting range out to the arc. Stevens is a unique post-up threat in that he faces up his defender — most often on the left block — attacks their hip and drives the ball baseline. On the opposite block, he deploys a more common drop step into a power dribble, working to get to his left shoulder. Only it’s way less effective. You can send a hard double his way, but Stevens makes great decisions on pitch outs to the wing. On the defensive end, he offers some rim protection, but he’s foul-prone at times when hunting blocks.
  • POST: Marcanvis Hymon vs. Jeremiah Tilmon | Guarding Hymon is conducive to keeping Tilmon on the floor. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior gets touches on flash cuts and cutting the basket, usually filling gaps created by rotational help. Or he subsists on putbacks. No, Tilmon can’t abandon Hymon, but he won’t have to worry about going head-to-head with him on post-ups. On the other end, Tilmon could be in a position for a big night, facing a defender who allows 1.333 PPP on post plays.
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Key Reserves | The Rebels can cycle eight bodies through their rotation, although that requires Kennedy to live with a porous defense on the floor. Missouri’s bench is short, but it’s managed to extract enough rebounding, distribution and team defense to spur the Tigers at the right time in wins over Alabama and Kentucky.

  • G: Markel Crawford | The graduate transfer from Memphis has been inconsistent, moving in and out of the starting five during non-conference play and finally settling in as an infusion of offense. (Ole Miss is 6-1 when he scores more than 15 points.) The 6-4 wing thrives in transition and attacking downhill off ball-screens. But you can play him as a driver because his perimeter shooting (0.967 PPP on catch-and-shoots and 0.84 PPP on spot-ups) isn’t a strong suit.
  • CF: Jontay Porter | After a disheartening road loss to Mississippi State, we wrote that young bigs are going to young big. Then Porter went out and, as detailed by Bill C., put up beefy numbers against the Tide and ’Cats: 44 minutes, 26 points (7-9 2PT, 3-7 3PT, 3-6 FT), 11 rebounds, three assists, three blocks, four turnovers. In those outings, Porter’s used fast starts on post-ups and face-up jumpers from the elbow to unlock his powers. And it’s nice to see, frankly, that he’s no longer an easy scout. Since the loss to Florida, SEC opponents figured out you could sit on Jontay when used a drag screen at the top of the key for pick-and-pops or that he’d camp out in the corner shot-hunting 3-pointers. Adding some diversity to his shot selection also lets him work in the mid-post, where his vision makes him a great passer.

The Bottom Line

Trips to Oxford make me skittish. Kennedy’s club enjoys a nice home court advantage (10th best in the NCAA, per KenPom) and can shuffle its perimeter rotation to find an optimal blend. Missouri’s poor ball-handling also makes it a distinct possibility that Davis, Crawford, and Tyree could have nice nights in the open floor.

If Missouri finds a way to own the glass and value the ball, though, the Rebels are vulnerable enough in the half court — every guard allows 1.000 PPP on spot-ups — for Cuonzo Martin’s group to find a groove.