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SEC Basketball Preview: Ole Miss needs a few breakouts to take that next step

Previewing the No. 9 team in the SEC, the Ole Miss Rebels.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Mississippi vs Louisiana State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

SEC money has done a lot of good for many programs, but probably nobody more than Ole Miss. When Texas A&M and Missouri joined the SEC, Ole Miss’s basketball was largely an afterthought. Back then, they were spending around $2.5 million per year. Now, head coach Kermit Davis is making $2.8 million on his own.

Not that the program didn’t have a few successes along the way — it did — but unless you’re an Ole Miss fan, you’d probably have a difficult time naming an Ole Miss basketball player aside from Marshall Henderson. But with some investment and a new facility, there’s a different feeling around Oxford the last few years. One that says, even in a down year, we’re going to be a tough out.

Last year, the Rebels were probably two games from being on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. So what about this year?


Previous SEC Previews

Ole Miss Preview

#9 Ole Miss Rebels

Last Season: 16 - 12 (10-8 in conference) No. 51 KenPom

My Prediction: 18 - 11 (8-10, 9th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 7.4-10.6 (9th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 9th in conference

KenPom Projection: 18-11 (9-9 in conference) No. 57

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Kermit Davis | Fourth Season, 51-42

Despite the investment, Ole Miss remains a pretty tough job. Former coach Andy Kennedy did an incredible job with virtually no resources, and Davis has followed up with more money in the coffers and similar results— if not worse. Part of that is because the SEC is as tough of a league as any, but it’s primarily because of the SEC money— everyone has it. Just being respectable requires spending money, and Kermit has the program respectable.

Davis’ success and longevity at Middle Tennessee shouldn’t be overlooked. Murfreesboro isn’t an easy place to win, either, and that’s likely why Davis is a good fit at Ole Miss. It’s a tough job that requires some creativity, and Davis has shown a sense of creativity and resourcefulness. He took a team in disarray after Kennedy was run off and got them to the NCAA Tournament in Year 1. And while the results the last few years have been a little more erratic, Davis has a bit of a mystery team that could very easily find itself winning more than a few key games to get back into the tournament.

Seat Temp: COOL

ole miss 2021 preview 10 year

It’s pretty impressive how consistent the program has been over the last decade. One high season, two low ones, and the rest has been... average. In a typical season, last year’s team probably would have had 19 or 20 wins. Meanwhile, their KenPom rating was only one spot lower than the group that made the 2019 tournament. So if you’re going to project what this season ends up being for the Rebels, approximately 19-20 wins seem about right. Toss in a Quad 1 win or two, and you’re back in the tournament.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Devontae Shuler graduation 27 79.20% 21.38% 19.53% 20.34%
Romello White graduation 28 69.16% 16.61% 19.28% 13.85%
KJ Buffen transfer 26 52.44% 11.36% 12.70% 11.08%
Khadim Sy transfer 14 13.78% 2.23% 2.09% 2.28%
Dimencio Vaughn transfer 16 9.69% 1.40% 0.33% 2.27%
Shon Robinson transfer 6 1.78% 0.42% 0.27% 0.52%
Antavion Collum transfer 8 2.93% 0.47% 0.47% 0.69%
45.80% 53.87% 54.67% 51.03%

Devontae Shuler is a great player, and I say this with all due respect: Are the Rebels better off with him no longer around as a primary option? As a sophomore, Shuler was the third option behind Breein Tyree and Terence Davis, and he operated with high efficiency and shot the ball well from outside. Once Davis moved on, though, Shuler struggled as the second option behind Tyree. His minutes were nearly identical, but his usage and shot volume went up five percentage points each. Yet his efficiency fell by 13 points per 100 possessions. Not horrible, but not great either. He rebounded a little bit as a senior, but it wasn’t enough to last year, but not enough to put the program in the tournament conversation. Shuler also represents the last of the Andy Kennedy era in Oxford.

Imported as a grad transfer, Romello White gave the Rebels more consistency around the hoop at 10 points and eight rebounds a night. KJ Buffen transferred after three mostly solid seasons in Oxford. Originally a Kennedy recruit, Buffen stuck with Davis but saw his playing time erode as a junior. Khadim Sy started nearly every game as junior but was relegated to spot minutes when he did play last year. Dimencio Vaughn arrived from Rider, played sparingly at Ole Miss, then transferred back to Rider. Both Shon Robinson and Antavion Collum rarely played after multiple years. In Robinson’s case, he was a redshirt freshman who saw limited action, and Collum found himself out of the rotation after seeing good minutes his freshman season.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Jarkel Joiner SR CG 28 76.36% 17.38% 49.60% 14.51%
Luis Rodriguez JR CF 28 65.87% 11.05% 53.90% 15.02%
Matthew Murrell SO WING 28 42.93% 6.12% 41.60% 3.32%
Robert Allen SR POST 28 40.00% 5.24% 55.20% 7.32%
Austin Crowley JR CG 27 27.56% 3.37% 43.60% 2.39%
Sammy Hunter JR POST 25 17.60% 2.91% 57.10% 2.78%
John McBride JR WING 4 0.71% 0.05% 17.40% 0.01%
54.21% 46.12% 45.35%
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Jarkel Joiner | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

If you think the mid-range game is dead, don’t tell Jarkel Joiner. Last season, he made a living there, attempting 207 shots inside the arc and just 88 3-point attempts. As a team, Ole Miss put up a high volume of 3-balls, and it’s odd to see your shooting guard run so counter to that.

Joiner transferred back home to Mississippi after a respectable two seasons at Cal-State Bakersfield and originally planned on walking on, but he’s on scholarship now. Instead, Joiner became a fixture in the lineup and the team’s second-leading scorer. This year, he will need to be that guy again, and we’ll see if he holds up while being more of a focus from the defense.

Luis Rodriguez plays the role of glue guy really well. The lightly-used combo forward came into his junior year having spent more time rehabbing injuries than he had on the floor. Still, his slashing skills on offense and defensive flexibility quickly made him a starter. He was nationally ranked in offensive and defensive rebound rate and block rate, as well as steal rate. Ole Miss needs him to shoot the ball with more consistency, but he’s otherwise forced his way into minutes by doing everything else.

Robert Allen, who arrived from Samford, also became a spot starter and consistent contributor in the post. He’s a little undersized at the five but athletic enough to play the combo forward spot in a pinch. I wouldn’t be surprised if you confused Allen with Sammy Hunter: one is 6-8, the other 6-9. One is 225 pounds, the other 230. One wears No. 21, the other No. 23. Both are similar players and fit into the reserve post role and the ability to play the four. It’s a little surprising to see Austin Crowley still on the roster after seeing a decrease in minutes from his freshman to sophomore season. However, Crowley is a Mississippi native and still has the tools to be a more impactful player than he was last year.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Murrell | SOPHOMORE | WING

Maybe the most important key to Ole Miss’ success or failure this season rests on the ample shoulders of sophomore guard Matthew Murrell. A former top-40 recruit out of Memphis, Murrell has all the tools you could want to be a high-impact guard and potential NBA draft pick. But Murrell’s rocky freshman season saw his minutes go up and down, and his shooting never quite settled in. Coming into college, he was known more for his shooting, and it makes sense when you see him set up. His broad frame is on balance, and his release is fluid. He has all the makings of an elite shot-maker. The roster shapes up a little more this season towards Murrell’s favor, so it’ll be vital for him to step into a more primary role.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Daeshun Ruffin 5'9 160 ★★★★ 51 PG
Fr James White 6'5 190 ★★★ 208 WING
Fr Eric Van Der Heijden 6'8 205 ★★★ 217 CF
Fr Grant Slatten 6'5 195 ★★★ 226 WING
So Jaemyn Brakefield 6'8 220 Transfer Duke CF
Sr Tye Fagan 6'3 200 Transfer Georgia CG
G-Sr Nysier Brooks 7'0 245 Grad Transfer Miami POST

If Jackson, Mississippi, native Daeshun Ruffin were 6-2, he’d be viewed as a potential lottery pick in the NBA draft. Instead, he stands 5’9, but it still holds an outstanding basketball player. A four-star scoring point guard, the 51st ranked player in the country, and a McDonald’s All-American, Ruffin should step into and assume the starting point guard role right away. The rest of the freshman class is built chiefly on players who project as potential building blocks. James White is a high-scoring athletic wing out of Georgia. Eric Van Der Heijden is a long combo forward or stretch-five out of North Carolina. Grant Slatten is a slender scoring wing and consistent shooter from Tennessee.

Kermit Davis welcomes a vital trio of transfers, starting with Duke transfer Jaemyn Brakefield, a former top-40 recruit and combo forward from Huntington Prep. Brakefield isn’t an explosive athlete but is solid and skilled while also capable of running the offense and distributing the ball. Next, Tye Fagan transferred from Georgia, where he spent the last three years as an efficient but low usage guard. Fagan fit nicely with Sahvir Wheeler, a high-usage point guard, so he should have no problem moving in and playing without the ball. Finally, Miami transfer big man Nysier Brooks should at least provide defense and rebounding from his spot.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Daeshun Ruffin Tye Fagan
(2) Combo Guard Jarkel Joiner Austin Crowley James White
(3) Wing Matthew Murrell Luis Rodriguez Grant Slatten
(4) Combo Forward Jaemyn Brakefield Sammy Hunter Eric Van Der Heijden
(5) Post Nysier Brooks Robert Allen

Depth at point guard is shallow, but the best lineup starts with Ruffin and Joiner. An improved Murrell slots in at the wing, while Brakefield handles the four spot. The Rebels should be able to count on consistency from Brooks in the post. Rodriguez, Fagan, and Allen seem like the most logical picks to round out the eight-man rotation. The only bit of intrigue is whether Crowley or one of the other freshmen emerge to push for a reserve role. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Rodriguez’s consistency land him a place in the starting five, but at worst, he’ll bring energy off the bench.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 18-12 | KenPom Projected Record: 18-11

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Home New Orleans 321 W
Nov 12 Home Charleston Southern 340 W
Nov 18 Neutral Marquette 87 W
Nov 19 Neutral West Virginia / Elon 46 / 211 L
Nov 21 Neutral TBD -
Nov 26 Home Mississippi Valley St 358 W
Nov 30 Home Rider 234 W
Dec 4 Home Memphis 16 L
Dec 11 Neutral Western Kentucky 90 W
Dec 15 Home Middle Tennessee 272 W
Dec 18 Home Dayton 84 W
Dec 21 Home Samford 255 W
Jan 29 Home Kansas State 82 W
avg 206.57 10-2

No road games, huh? Kermit signed up for a few neutral court games, including one against Western Kentucky and former Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury. Memphis features multiple lottery picks after Jalen Duran and Emani Bates reclassified into 2021 to join forces and play for Penny Hardaway this season. The addition bumped the reigning NIT champions into the top-25 and will make them a formidable opponent on any floor this year. The Charleston Classic will be a challenging event, as Ole Miss faces Marquette and Shaka Smart in Year 1 in what should be a toss-up game. You’re likely facing West Virginia with a win, which is looking like an early top-25 level team. On the other side of the bracket is St. Bonaventure, Clemson, Temple, and Boise State. The rest of the non-con schedule is filled with “should win” home games, except Dayton and a home visit from Kansas State. If Ole Miss can win both of those, they should get the win total up enough to get NCAA consideration. Without many Quad 1 opportunities, the schedule doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Home Florida 25 L
Jan 5 Away Tennessee 13 L
Jan 8 Home Mississippi St 65 L
Jan 11 Away Texas A&M 78 W
Jan 15 Home Auburn 28 W
Jan 18 Home Missouri 96 W
Jan 22 Away Mississippi St 65 L
Jan 26 Home Arkansas 15 W
Feb 1 Away LSU 43 L
Feb 5 Away Florida 25 L
Feb 9 Home Alabama 19 W
Feb 12 Away Missouri 96 L
Feb 15 Home South Carolina 86 W
Feb 19 Away Georgia 159 L
Feb 23 Away Auburn 28 L
Feb 26 Home Texas A&M 78 W
Mar 1 Away Kentucky 17 L
Mar 5 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
avg 56.39 8-10

This season, the home and home matchups for Ole Miss are their permanent rivals — Mississippi State, Missouri, and Auburn — and this year, and they’re mixing it up with Florida and Texas A&M. The Rebels’ history against Missouri, at least since the Tigers joined the SEC, is enough to think they can improve upon the 4-6 record I’ve predicted for those five home-and-homes. That, or get a split against State, and suddenly you’re at .500. Other games the Rebels need to win include home matchups against Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and South Carolina — all of whom we’ve projected to finish behind the Rebels. Last year, Ole Miss started 3-6 in the conference, including two losses to Georgia. Under Davis, they’ve lost at least three conference games at home in each season. Lose three at home this year, and I don’t think this is a tournament team. With home games against Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Auburn, Quad 1 wins are limited but there.

OVERVIEW

One of the early questions surrounding Ole Miss this season is what kind of team they want to be. Previous versions of the Rebels were long and athletic, with personnel capable of extending their defense and trapping. It seemed to fit how Kermit wanted to play — or so we all thought. Maybe not?

We’re caught in a weird spot: Kermit’s upgraded the overall talent level, but how is he going to use it? No, Ole Miss’ roster won’t top what’s in Lexington or Knoxville, but Davis still has three players—a third of his rotation—that were rated as top-60 prospects and project to start. But Ruffin is a freshman and undersized lead guard, while Murrell and Brakefield will both need to make giant leaps forward. Is that good enough to carry Ole Miss to the NCAA tournament?

tennessee synergy 2020

But what happens if that trio doesn’t hit? Does Jarkel Joiner have enough in the bag to take this team to the next level? The season is going to rest squarely on the shoulders of those four guys. We know enough about Rodriguez, Fagan, Crowley, and Brooks to know they are fine in rotational roles, but they’re not the focal point of an offense. Having knowns on the roster is a good thing, and those players are definitely known. Perhaps the ceiling is more limited, but you know what you’re getting.

The unknowns add up to this: what’s the margin of error for the Rebels? Putting an offensive emphasis on someone like Joiner, you can expect a level of efficiency, but it certainly lowers the ceiling on the program. Joiner was good a year ago, but his efficiency rating was just a shade over 100, or 1.01 points per possession, with a little over 20 percent usage rate. Do you really want to ramp up his usage when efficiency drops?

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Joiner was good as a secondary option, and keeping him in that role places a fair bit of pressure on Ruffin to be as good or better than advertised. Ruffin can be a significant impact. He’s an elite-level playmaker, and he’s going to need to absorb possessions and absorb a lot of them. Is that too much to ask of a freshman point guard?

It’s also tricky to elevate players into primary roles when you haven’t seen it before. Last year was an incredibly tough year to gauge and judge talent and its growth due to the oddities of playing in a pandemic. But even with that caveat, it was noticeable how uneven Murrell played, and he was a guy I thought would break out at some point. So again, is it too much to ask that Murrell becomes the kind of player who can lead the team in scoring?

This brings us to Brakefield, a guy who barely saw minutes on a Duke team that was a bit of a mess last year. He’s skilled, he’s good around the basket, and a consistent passer for his size, but he needs to show it on the floor against this level of competition.

All this goes to say, I’m intrigued by this Ole Miss team— but not sure about them. There’s enough here to be good, but enough questions it could go the other way, and Davis hasn’t yet put it all together in a consistent run to think this year will be the one.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

There is more talent on this roster than Ole Miss has seen in several years. Ruffin is an All-American point guard who is surrounded with guys who can make shots when set up. The schedule sets up nicely that all the Rebels need to do is flip a few results here and there and they’ll be dancing.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

They’ve got talent— yes, but proven talent is another question altogether. Davis has put together two solid seasons and one not so good one, and winning in the SEC where you aren’t going to run out the best roster in the league every night is difficult. The roster has talent but not enough to really bust through.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.