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The Watch: Ole Miss is defying expectations

Under Kermit Davis, the Rebels are bouncing back are shaking off predictions of landing in the SEC basement. This week, we’ll get a sense for whether the quick turnaround is for real.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve put off asking this question until we tipped off SEC play, but I won’t hold my tongue anymore: Is Ole Miss experiencing a dead-cat bounce?

In stock market jargon, it’s a color term for the temporary recovery in share prices after a substantial drop-off. On the hardwood, the Rebels certainly plummeted last season. Sitting at 10-9 and .500 in the SEC, they lost 10 of their remaining 11 games — you all know who they beat — a saw coach Andy Kennedy step aside.

Now, a mere nine months after luring Kermit Davis away from Middle Tennessee, Ole Miss is projected to just miss the cut for the NCAA tournament. That’s a substantially better prognosis than we gave the Rebs in our season preview and the projections by SEC media, which picked them to wind up living in the conference cellar.

On Saturday, Davis and Co. knocked off Vanderbilt to open conference play, moving to 11-2 and extending their win streak to eight games. The victory also inched Ole Miss up to No. 40 in KenPom, the program highest rating since finishing the 2015 season, one where the Rebels reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. So, it’s safe to say Davis’ debut in Oxford is off to a rousing start.

Now we’ll see whether Rebels’ revitalization is for real.

On Tuesday, they welcome No. 11 Auburn, followed by the first leg of the Egg Bowl in Starkville against No. 14 Mississippi State. Right now, the analytics website of your choosing — KenPom, Bart Torvik and Haslametrics — are calling for a pair of losses. And if the Rebels look feisty in the process, it’s worth staying in a holding pattern. A split would be a victory. Meantime, a sweep might force us to reframe our expectations radically.

While the exercise is imperfect, it’s handy to use analytic sites to rank SEC teams, take an average for each program and then compare them to the preseason poll. Once you do so, it’s interesting to see who is meeting expectations. Scanning the rows and columns, it’s clear Ole Miss is the conference’s earliest overachiever and on track to finish eight spots ahead of where they were picked before the season began.

Reality vs. Expectations

Team KenPom Torvik Haslam Avg Preseason Diff
Team KenPom Torvik Haslam Avg Preseason Diff
Tennessee 1 1 1 1 2 1
Auburn 2 2 2 2 3 1
Kentucky 3 5 5 3.25 1 -2.25
Florida 5 3 3 3.67 5 1.33
Mississippi State 4 4 4 4 4 0
Ole Miss 6 6 6 6 14 8
LSU 7 7 7 7 6 -1
Arkansas 8 8 10 8.67 10 1.33
Alabama 9 9 8 8.67 7 -1.67
Missouri 11 10 9 10 9 -1
South Carolina 14 11 11 12 11 -1
Vanderbilt 10 14 12 12 8 -4
Texas A&M 12 12 13 12.3 12 -0.3
Georgia 13 13 14 13.33 13 0.33
KenPom, Bart Torvik, Haslametrics

Even if Ole Miss regresses, finishing closer to 8-10 than 10-8, there’s little doubt it will give Davis’ retooling efforts a shot in the arm. While Davis and Stevens will move on, the Rebels will bring back five contributors and import a pair of four-star freshmen in wing Antavion Collum and post Rodney Howard.

So far, we’ve had to assess to Davis’ returns with a skeptical eye.

First, there’s the matter of Ole Miss’ schedule, which ranks 256th nationally and is the weakest among its SEC peers. Plotting a relatively safe course for Davis’ maiden voyage isn’t illogical, but it can make rounding a cape and entering the Roaring Forties of league play a tad more jarring. This week kicks off a stretch where seven of the Rebels’ next eight games are against teams ranked better than 60th in KenPom.

Any volatility will likely start on the defensive end, where Ole Miss ranks 89th nationally in efficiency. Using Synergy Data, we can see the Rebels’ defense against top-100 offenses leaves something to be desired. Single out games against Butler, Baylor, Cincinnati and San Diego, and you’ll learn the Rebels’ defense would give up 111 points over 100 possessions, according to HoopLens data.

Poor Rebel Defenses

Opponent Rank PPP PPP Allowed Diff
Opponent Rank PPP PPP Allowed Diff
ULM 105 0.954 0.92 -0.354
Nicholls State 253 0.869 0.75 -0.119
Southeastern Louisiana 341 0.763 0.76 -0.003
Florida Gulf Coast 241 0.876 0.86 0.016
Western Michigan 169 0.917 0.89 0.027
Middle Tennessee 342 0.757 0.79 0.033
Chattanooga 200 0.899 0.95 0.051
Baylor 254 0.868 0.93 0.062
Illinois State 184 0.912 1.04 0.128
San Diego 36 0.987 1.16 0.173
Cincinnati 111 0.948 1.15 0.202
Butler 69 0.97 1.2 0.23
Synergy, KenPom

What’s troublesome about the Rebels’ profile isn’t their perimeter defense. (It doesn’t matter who Ole Miss plays, the opponent shoots roughly 35 percent from 3-point range.) Instead, it’s the inability to keep good teams from scoring inside the arc, where they’re shooting 51.2 percent, according to HoopLens. On top of that, Davis’ crew, which sports a 46.5 free-throw rate, hacks the crap out of people.

There are many ways to go through life on SEC play, but giving up easy buckets and free throws aren’t how you want do it. Trying to contain Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Quinndary Weatherspoon is going to test that proposition.

Scoring the ball, though, doesn’t appear to be as worrisome for Ole Miss.

When Davis took the job, he wasn’t inheriting a roster bereft of capable hands. In fact, a pair the departures of Markel Crawford and Deandre Burnett may have been a blessing, because it cleared a logjam at guard and created a clearly defined pecking order. Now, there’s no question Terence Davis, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler run the show.

This season, Davis is fully optimized. Working in high ball-screens, he balances scoring (1.356 PPP) and distributing (1.175 PPP), and shooting 44.6 percent on jumpers makes him a threat playing off the ball. All the while, he’s still deadly sprinting the wings in transition.

For his part, Tyree has made the leap in his junior season. He’s shooting 50 percent on spot-up jumpers, including 40.4 percent from 3-point range. And when you put the ball in his hands for high pick-and-rolls, he can slash and finish at the rim or kicks the ball to an open man (1.32 PPP) for possessions that are just as potent. And when he leads the break, he’s got options with Davis and Shuler.

Down low, Bruce Stevens’ athleticism makes him a perfect big to score off rim rolls, pocket passes to the short corner and by pounding the offensive glass. Combo forward Blake Hinson’s quietly put together one the better starts among SEC freshman, shooting 38.1 percent from 3-point range. Lastly, fellow freshman K.J. Buffen’s managed to fill in the margins.

So, to recap: Davis has a backcourt that would be a boon at most SEC programs, a low-usage, high-energy big man and a pair of improving freshmen. Does that asset mix make the Rebels a threat to crash the top of the standings? We’re about to find out.



THE CAN’T-MISS

We know you have competing demand for your time and attention span. No, you won’t have ESPN+ called up watching mid-week Atlantic Sun games. But if you want college hoops in your life, make sure to have your eyes on this game.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 North Carolina at No. 15 N.C. State | 8 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN

The ACC’s depth is a perennial strength, but the top of the standings is a perennial refuge for Duke and North Carolina. Occasionally, Florida State, Virginia, Louisville or Notre Dame pass through, but the center of power remains along Tobacco Road.

This season, Duke, UVA and UNC again look like they’ve tried to separate themselves from the ACC’s chase pack, one where Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse aren’t quite at the height of the powers. And over the weekend, UVA asphyxiated the then ninth-ranked ‘Noles in a 13-point victory in Tallahassee.

So who might also muster an insurgency? Well, Buzz Williams’ crew at No. 9 Virginia Tech bears watching, but we’ll also get to take measure of Kevin Keatts’ squad at North Carolina State.

Sitting at 13-1, the Wolfpack are literally up to speed on Keatts’ high-octane and stifling style, ranking 15th nationally in pace and seventh in turnover percentage, forcing them on 24.6 percent of opponents’ possessions. Cycling nine to 10 bodies helps, and his roster is populated with long, athletic players who clog passing lanes and create deflections. To say NC State plays on the line and up the line is an understatement.

Last season, the Pack finished in a four-team tie for third place — the program’s highest finish since 2004— and ended a two-year absence from the NCAA tournament. Their return to the AP poll also ended a five-year drought.

The quick turnaround is also being led by yeomen talent. Sure, sophomore guard Markell Johnson was a top-60 talent, but leading scorers Torin Dorn (No. 386) and C.J. Bryce, who followed Keatts from UNC-Wilmington, were buried in 247 Sports’ composite ranking or entirely absent. The same goes Utah transfer Devon Daniels (No. 205) and JUCO transfer D.J. Funderburk. The program’s success is also stunning given the fact there were just three returners on the roster.

Deploying the zone press he learned at the right hand of Rick Pitino, Keatts is 4-1 against top-10 opponents while in Raleigh, including wins over Duke and North Carolina. His teams are comfortable playing at a breakneck pace and in the open floor, which will be interesting to watch against Roy Williams’ vaunted fast break. Notching another upset could act as turbo boost, too.

After UNC, the Pack has a workable three-game road stretch where they face Pitt (No. 90), Notre Dame (No. 77) and Louisville (No. 37), followed by Clemson at home. That tees up a defining trio of tilts against UVA, Virginia Tech and rematch with the Heels. Breaking to a 6-1 start in ACC play could set the stage for a special run. And if Keatts’ track record teaches us anything, it’s that we’d wrong to doubt him.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 Tennessee at Florida | 5 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN

Palms aren’t mashing panic buttons in Gainesville, but how much restraint will be left a week from now?

Florida’s woeful offense and inconsistent front court are well-known issues. Yet the talent at coach Mike White’s disposal is abundant enough that South Carolina shouldn’t be a problem. Holding a nine-point lead with seven minutes to go, the Gators looked poised to pick up a win in their conference opener.

It wasn’t. The Gamecock popped off a 9-0 spurt to pull even with four minutes left, and then stole a dramatic win after...well, just watch.

Usually, stubbing your toe on the first day on conference play shouldn’t be cause for concern. However, circumstances are different for UF. They hit the road Tuesday for an always-tough trip to Arkansas, followed by a visit from Tennessee — a squad that dismantled Georgia by 46 on Saturday. Finally, the Gators pack their bags face to meet Mississippi State, a squad that’s matching its newly potent offense with steady defense.

Now, a 1-3 start is the projected outcome for this stretch, but what if the Gators emerge winless?

Theoretically, the schedule lets up in two weeks, when Florida heads to Georgia and hosts Texas A&M. But if the Gators can lose at home to South Carolina, it’s foolish to bank those two games as likely wins. They’ll need them, too, because another grueling run awaits them: at No. 25 TCU, Ole Miss, No. 18 Kentucky, at No. 11 Auburn, and at No. 3 Tennessee.

If you’re keeping track at home, seven of Florida’s next 10 games are against top-50 opponents, including five against rated better than 20th in KenPom. An optimist might posit that there’s as much opportunity as peril: Swipe a couple wins, and the Gators’ resume looks better.

Yet UF’s track record undercuts a rosy forecast. Against teams in top 50 of KenPom, Florida’s offense sputters, producing a ghastly 0.93 points per possession, and that includes shelling Butler by 34 points. Take out that beating, and efficiency slides to 0.89 PPP — or roughly 58 points per game if the Gators play at their plodding pace.

We’re also past the juncture where KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson’s play can be chalked up as slow starts. Together, they’re generating 0.87 PPP and shooting just 38.7 percent from the floor. Allen’s offensive rating looks better in light of his usage (19.7 percent), but there’s no obvious explanation for Hudson, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft to improve his stock, and his struggles.

Now, White has some interesting pieces. Freshman Noah Locke’s shooting stroke offsets Hudson’s skid. Freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard has been able to put defenses in rotation out of ball screens and find shooters. Lastly, big man Keith Stone’s been a reliable spot-up shooter. Keyontae Johnson shows flashes in transition, and Deaundrae Ballard’s been efficient in spot minutes.

A year ago, slashing Hudson’s minute would have sounded insane. Now, though, it might be worth considering. Against high-major opponents, Florida scores seven more points more over 100 possessions with Hudson sitting, per HoopLens. The offense only slightly improves when Locke checks in (0.98 PPP), but the Gators’ shooting numbers tick up and lend some balance. If Hudson doesn’t break out soon, will it force White’s hand?

In the frontcourt, White’s constrained. Sure, Stone struggles to score around the rim, but he’s a reliable rebounder, offers extra rim protection and creates turnovers. Taking him off the floor saps a vital defensive presence. The same logic applies to Kevarrius Hayes, who relies on pick-and-rolls, cutting and the occasional post-up to generate offense. Yet his real utility comes on the defensive end.

For now, White leans on his identity as a coach who preaches and lives by a defense-first gospel. The Gators certainly adhere to its tenets. Soon, events may force them to embrace change. A reckoning with the Volunteers might just be the triggering event.


THE DEEP CUT

At Rock M Nation, we believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. Let’s get off the grid, shall we?

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-San Francisco vs Pacific Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Choose Your Adventure!

I’m bending the rules. This week, there are three tilts featuring contenders for the nation’s top four mid-major conferences, and each of them is worth watching, even if it’s merely snippets.

West Coast Conference

No. 5 Gonzaga at San Francisco | 9 p.m. CT, Saturday, ESPN2 | The Dons have quietly crept to 43rd in KenPom and are coming off a win over Bay Area neighbor Saint Mary’s. Coach Kyle Smith’s group ranks 34th nationally in KenPom, hasn’t seen an opponent of the Bulldogs’ caliber. The backcourt duo of Charles Minlend and Frankie Ferrari is spunky, but the Dons’ lack perimeter shooting and want to play at a patient speed. The Zags’ have enough size to protect the rim, and their transition attack is dominant that it can hijack tempo. On paper, the WCC is as deep as ever, but we’ll get visceral proof as to whether the conference’s overlords have reason to worry.

Mid American Conference

Toledo at No. 19 Buffalo | 6 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN+ | To be honest, I haven’t laid eyes on the Rockets, who are the favorites in the MAC’s West Division. What I do now, however, is they were thumped by 15 points on their home floor against Ball State, ending a 10-game winning streak. They’ve also built an offense where Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk arrays shooters galore around the 3-point arc. Senior guard Jaelan Sanford paces the Rockets with 17.4 points per game, one of five Rockets to average in double figures, including Missouri transfer Willie Jackson’s 11.0 points a night. Right now, Buffalo’s resume should be good enough to earn them an at-large bid, but taking losses in the MAC, which has just three teams in the top 100 of the NCAA’s NET rankings, still isn’t advisable.

Atlantic 10 Conference

VCU at Davidson | 1 p.m. CT Saturday, CBS Sports Network | The A10 wants to get its mojo back. In the past two years, Dayton, VCU and Rhode Island saw their coaches plucked by Indiana, LSU and UConn, creating a vacuum that’s been gone unfilled. While Saint Louis was installed as the preseason favorite, the Billikens are anemic offensively and just saw freshman Carte’Are Gordon, a former top-50 prospect, announced his departure from the program last week. If Saint Louis is the favorite, its grip is tenuous.

You can make a similar critique of VCU under second-year coach Mike Rhodes, who trained under Shaka Smart and Will Wade. The Rams are seven nationally in defensive efficiency — and 209th on the other end of the floor. Few coaches in the country run prettier offenses than McKillop’s well-known Flex, which showcases Jon Axel Gudmundsson And it has proven in the past that it can more than stand up against VCU’s tactics.

Mountain West Conference

No. 10 Nevada at Fresno State | 7 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN2 | No, the sky is tumbling to earth in Reno, but getting drilled by 27 points at New Mexico can rattle nerves. It also throws the Wolf Pack’s body of work into a new relief. To wit, here are their five best wins, based on NET rankings: Utah State (No. 35), Arizona State (No. 67), Loyola Chicago (No. 100), BYU (No. 107), USC (No. 111). Using Warren Nolan’s simulated team sheet, we can see that none of those wins land in Quadrant 1, and none of the teams it’s beaten are locks to make the field of 68.

Point being, this road trip to the San Joaquin Valley might just be one of two remaining chances for Eric Musselman’s squad to improve its credentials. Now, it also has to blot out what is objectively a splotch on the page. To remove the stain, the Pack are going to need to raze the rest of the conference and hope that a run of dominance allows them to frame what happened in The Pit as an aberration.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 match-ups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other games that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

Jan. 7 to Jan. 13

Date Game Time (CT) TV Thrill Score
Date Game Time (CT) TV Thrill Score
Jan. 8 No. 12 North Carolina at No. 15 N.C. State 8 p.m. ESPN 85
Jan. 12 No. 3 Tennessee at Florida 5 p.m. ESPN 78.4
Jan. 12 No. 8 Texas Tech at Texas 1 p.m. Longhorn Network 75.4
Jan. 12 No. 1 Duke at No. 13 Florida State 1 p.m. ESPN 75.3
Jan. 9 No. 11 Auburn at Ole Miss 6 p.m. ESPN2 75.1
Jan. 11 Purdue at No. Wisconsin 8 p.m. Fox Sports 1 72.8
Jan. 13 Villanova at Creighton 11 a.m. Fox 72.1
Jan. 12 No. 16 Ohio State at Iowa 1:30 p.m. Big Ten Network 70.7
Jan. 12 No. 5 Gonzaga at San Francisco 9 p.m. ESPN2 70.4
Jan. 12 No. 25 TCU at No. 23 Oklahoma 1 p.m. Fox Sports Southwest 69.9
Jan. 11 No. 21 Indiana at Maryland 6 p.m. Fox Sports 1 69.8
Jan. 8 Maryland at Minnesota 6 p.m. Big Ten Network 69.3
Jan. 13 No. 8 Michigan State at Penn State 12:30 p.m. CBS 68.4
Jan. 9 Florida at Arkansas 7:30 p.m. SEC Network 68.2
Jan. 12 No. 10 Nevada at Fresno State 7 p.m. ESPN2 67.8
Jan. 12 No. 7 Kansas at Baylor 3 p.m. ESPN 67.7
Jan. 9 No. 21 Marquette at Creighton 6 p.m. CBS Sports Network 66.5
Jan. 8 No. 20 Iowa State at Baylor 6 p.m. ESPN 65.4
Jan. 8 Purdue at No. 8 Michigan State 8 p.m. ESPN2 65.4
Jan. 12 LSU at Arkansas 5 p.m. SEC Network 65.1
Jan. 9 No. 25 TCU at No. 7 Kansas 8 p.m. ESPN2 64.5
Jan. 9 Butler at Seton Hall 7:30 p.m. Fox Sports 1 63.8
Jan. 9 No. 19 Houston at Temple 6 p.m. ESPN News 63.4
Jan. 8 No. 23 Oklahoma at No. 8 Texas Tech 8 p.m. ESPNews 62.9
Jan. 9 Clemson at Syracuse 7 p.m. ACC Network 62.8
Jan. 8 No. 3 Tennessee at Missouri 6 p.m. ESPN2 62
Jan. 13 Butler at Xavier 11 a.m. CBS Sports Network 61.8
Jan. 9 Iowa at Northwestern 8 p.m. Big Ten Network 60.9
Jan. 8 No. 25 St. John's at Villanova 6 p.m. Fox Sports 1 60.5
Jan. 12 Seton Hall at No. 21 Marquette 1 p.m. Fox Sports 1 60.4
Jan. 12 Ole Miss at No. 14 Mississippi State Noon CBS 58.9
Jan. 10 Wofford at UNC Greensboro 6 p.m. ESPN3 56.9
Jan. 8 Alabama at LSU 8 p.m. SEC Network 56.7
Jan. 12 VCU at Davidson 1 p.m. CBS Sports Network 56.2
Jan. 9 West Virginia at Kansas State 6 p.m. ESPNU 56
Jan. 12 Kansas State at No. 20 Iowa State 11 a.m. ESPN 2 50.1
Jan. 8 Toledo at No. 19 Buffalo 6 p.m. ESPN Plus 49.3
KenPom