Last season, Ole Miss was a prime example of even the best plans can go awry.
In its opener, point guard Daeshun Ruffin, the school’s first McDonald’s All-American, broke his hand and missed seven weeks. Then, Robert Allen blew out his knee during a victory over nearby Memphis. And around the time Ruffin was cleared to come back, leading scorer Jarkel Joiner underwent a back procedure that cost him three weeks. And finally, Ruffin tore his ACL against LSU in February.
Coach Kermit Davis has gradually upgraded the talent in Oxford, but it’s of little use when it can’t play. It’s hard to know precisely how good or bad Ole Miss might have been last season because their inconsistent lineup undermined any cohesion or momentum. There were plenty of near-misses, too. The Rebels dropped overtime games against Florida and Tennessee, two of seven defeats that came two possessions or less.
Fortunately for Davis, he enters this season with little attrition, only losing Joiner and Nysier Brooks. So, on paper at least, the Rebels bring back key pieces of their core — and a chance to show it was luck and not poor roster construction that held them back.
Previous SEC Previews
- 11. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 12. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
#10 Ole Miss Rebels
Last Season: 13 - 19 (4-14 in conference) No. 108 KenPom
My Prediction: 15 - 14 (7-11, 10th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 6.6 - 11.4 (10th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 9th in conference
KenPom Projection: 16-13 (8-10 in conference) No. 49
HEAD COACH: Kermit Davis | 5th Season, 64-61
By now, we know one consequence of the SEC Network coming online: it opened up the floodgates on revenue, allowing schools to ramp up investments in basketball drastically.
Almost a decade later, the league’s coaching fraternity boasts the likes of John Calipari, Rick Barnes, Bruce Pearl, Eric Musselman and Buzz Williams. For Davis, it was deep waters compared to his 16 seasons at Middle Tennessee State. His 1-3-1 zone and intelligent use of transfers made the Blue Raiders a plucky mid-major threat. However, it’s also a job where an athletic director is willing to give you a longer leash.
But Davis, a Mississippi native, arrived at Ole Miss to find sights raised. The Rebels no longer bring up the rear in basketball spending, and they ditched the Tad Pad for a new building six years ago. It didn’t need to announce expectations had shifted. Firing Andy Kennedy, the winningest coach in program history, after just a season in that new facility said enough.
No doubt, Kennedy maxed out the modest resources handed to him, but if there was a valid critique, it was that recruiting didn’t make a big jump — even as Ole Miss spent more.
That hasn’t been the case with Davis. Each season, save for the pandemic-affected 2020 cycle, the Rebels steadily moved up the recruiting rankings. In 2022, the program finished 25th in 247 Sports’ index, while Davis signed a pair of top-50 prospects — Ruffin and Murrell — in the two that preceded it. Meanwhile, his staff has made clever use of the transfer portal to land pieces like Joiner, Brooks, Allen, Jaemyn Brakefield, and Romello White.
Davis made the NCAA tournament his first season on the job with a roster assembled mainly by Kennedy. But in the last four seasons, those built with his hands have only won 47.8 percent of their games, including a 20-34 mark in SEC action.
The question might soon become whether Davis is the right guy to put it together.
Seat Temp: WARM
Consistency has been lacking the past few seasons, especially compared Kennedy’s 12-year tenure. With AK in charge, the Rebels finished lower than 100th in KenPom just once — his final season. Meanwhile, Davis already has two on his ledger in four seasons. Ole Miss deserves credit. It committed money to improve. Sooner or later, those investments need to pay off with more regular NCAA tournament bids.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
|Eric Van Der Heijden||transfer||15||4.79%||0.28%||0.03%||0.59%|
Few probably noticed when Oxford native Jarkel Joiner transferred back home from Cal State-Bakersfield. But last season, he averaged almost 13.2 points per game. He also finished with a 108.9 offensive rating, which isn’t bad, considering he played while injured. Over time, Joiner became a respectable spot-up threat but relied heavily on mid-range attempts. Defensively, he graded out in the 88th percentile nationally and allowed just 0.696 points per possession, according to Synergy Data. A two-way player with shot creation is handy, but Joiner won’t be doing it in Oxford. Instead, he used his extra year of eligibility to suit up at N.C. State.
Nysier Brooks, who transferred in from Miami, shot 59.1 percent around the rim, excelled as an interior defender, and was one of the SEC’s best at cleaning the defensive glass. The Rebels will also miss a guy like Luis Rodriguez, a terrific defender and energy source. He struggled a bit offensively last season but still rebounded well and was always a tough defender. He transferred to UNLV for his final season.
The Rebels also watched Austin Crowley transfer to Southern Miss. Crowley never entirely developed into the dynamic guard he flashed as a prospect. Still, he was a solid bench performer. The Rebels also lost Sammy Hunter, who was injury-plagued over three seasons in Oxford. But as a reserve big, he was sound offensively and a good rebounder.
Two lightly used freshmen, Eric Van Der Heijden and Grant Slatten, both transferred out after not finding room in the rotation. Slatten picked Tennessee Tech while Van Der Heijden chose UNC-Wilmington. Both are much closer to home and should be featured at mid-major programs.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Matthew Murrell | JUNIOR | WING
If things are going to go right for Ole Miss, Matthew Murrell’s growth might be a driving factor. A former top-40 recruit, Murrell’s a sturdy-framed wing who mixes plus athleticism with a soft jumper. But, given how the Rebels’ roster kept changing, it might have been easy to miss Murrell averaging 12.1 points per game, a three-fold increase from his freshman season.
The next step for Murrell, though, is consistency. He had an MVP performance against Mississippi State last season, scoring 31 points - missing just one shot - while finishing the night perfect from the free throw line. But he also had nights where he disappeared, such as a six-point outing in a home rout by Mizzou.
Part of the excitement around Murrell is his 1.1 points per shot on catch and shoot jumpers — something he didn’t get a lot of once Ruffin was out. Murrell has some ability to create his offense, but he can be lethal if he’s playing off a teammate who can break down and draw in a defense.
Brakefield arrived with plenty of pub as a transfer from Duke, but his motor wasn’t consistent and his 3-point stroke was inconsistent (27.3%) against KenPom top-50 teams. Additionally, while he doesn’t grade out poorly individually, the Rebels were 9.2 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor. There’s a floor-spacing combo forward capable of switching locked inside Brakefield. He just needs to let it loose.
Allen should be back to full strength this year and help to fill in the margins. Individually, his net rating has never been gaudy, but Ole Miss as a team sees its efficiency improve with him on the floor. Because of this, he’ll be a vital piece of the front court rotation.
White has the potential to be a high-scoring guard, but being a leaky sieve on defense has limited his role. He’s the type of scorer who can help elevate the Ole miss attack. Tye Fagan is also back for his COVID bonus year. After three years in Athens and one in Oxford, he’s a known talent. A good penetrator and solid defender, Fagan isn’t an explosive scorer but should be adequate off the bench.
Daeshun Ruffin | SOPHOMORE | POINT GUARD
Ruffin could be one of the sport’s more entertaining players this winter. Injuries derailed our chance to see him do it as a freshman, but the former top-60 recruit is a lightning-quick scorer at lead guard. Ignore his shooting numbers. A broken hand tends to dampen those. There won’t be a pad on it this year.
At just 5-foot-9, he’s a small but adept passer, shoots the ball well, and can get to the rim and draw defenses in. But Ruffin battled multiple injuries last year, missing time at the beginning and end of the season. When on the floor, Ole Miss averages 6.5 more points per 100 possessions, per Pivot Analysis. It helps that he also had a 29.4 assist rate. Ruffin should be ready to go with an entire offseason to get right. If he can hit the ground running, he should immediately elevate expectations for the Rebels.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|SR||Jayveous McKinnis||6'7||225||TRANSFER||Jackson State||POST|
This crop of freshmen could be foundational for Davis, assuming he’s around to develop them. Landing a quartet of four-star prospects to go with Murrell, Ruffin, and Brakefield might make this the most talent-laden roster in some time for the Rebels.
Malique Ewin, a forward and top-100 prospect, has soft hands that fit well with a sturdy 6-10 frame. One of the more intriguing freshmen in the SEC is Amaree Abram, a tough 6-3 point guard who has a good burst and was a late riser in the rankings. TJ Caldwell and Robert Cowherd are both stronger, more physical wings with good athleticism. Though early minutes may be hard to come by.
Davis turned to the transfer portal to shore up his frontcourt, starting with Jackson State transfer Jayveous McKinnis. The 6-7 forward averaged 12.4 points and 10.3 rebounds last season while posting a plus-16.2 net rating. There might be some concerns about McKinnis jumping to the SEC from the SWAC, where he was the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. But even if his scoring doesn’t carry over, his rebounding and rim protection (9.7 block percentage) could help him carve out a niche.
The same could be said of Buffalo transfer Josh Mballa, a 6-7 combo forward who can play spots three through five. Mballa averaged 13.0 points and 8.6 rebounds in the MAC, and while the jumper is hit or miss, the native of France can create off the dribble. He’s not the same caliber of a shot blocker. Still, he rebounded exceptionally well and was the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Ewin might have been one of the better prospects in Georgia, but Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Theo Akwuba could be an ideal five. At 6-11 with a plus-7 wingspan, Akwuba finished in the top 10 nationally for blocks (2.6) and offensive rebounds (3.8) per game. He’s a low-usage scorer (18.2%) but sports a reasonably efficient 58.5 true-shooting percentage. Almost all his touches came from point-blank range, and he averaged 1.26 PPP, per Synergy.
And last is Myles Burns, the second all-time leading scorer in Loyola of New Orleans school history. Loyola is an NAIA school, so it will be interesting to see what, if any, impact Burns will make.
|(1) Point Guard||Daeshun Ruffin||Amaree Abram|
|(2) Combo Guard||Matthew Murrell||Tye Fagan||Myles Burns|
|(3) Wing||James White||TJ Caldwell||Robert Cowherd|
|(4) Combo Forward||Jaemyn Brakefield||Josh Mballa||Robert Allen|
|(5) Post||Jayveous McKinnis||Theo Akwuba||Malique Erwin|
Figuring out a depth chart isn’t as easy as you think.
If it’s based on talent alone, it’s best to start with Murrell and Ruffin. From there, Davis has options. He brought in four senior transfers, all of whom expect to play. White paced Ole Miss in scoring during an offseason tour of the Bahamas, and it makes sense to slot him ahead of Fagan on the wing.
The logjams are along the frontline. If Brakefield lives up to his potential, the pecking order is easy. Mballa’s lack of shooting might hold him back, but his board work offsets it. In this scenario, it’s hard to see how Allen breaks through. And at the five, it makes sense to start with McKinnis, use Akwuba as a rim-protecting reserve, and slowly feed Ewin spot minutes.
My Projected Record: 15-14 | KenPom Projected Record: 16-13
|Nov 7||Home||Alcorn State||334||W|
|Nov 11||Home||Florida Atlantic||89||W|
|Nov 25||Neutral||Florida State / Siena||65 /244||L|
|Dec 20||Home||North Alabama||321||W|
|Jan 28||Away||Oklahoma State||30||L|
This is a well-designed schedule. Ole Miss gradually scales up the quality of opposition before a neutral-site event in Orlando. They open against Stanford, who won’t be a pushover, but Head Coach Jerrod Haase has yet to take the Cardinal to the NCAA tournament in six seasons. A tough matchup against Florida State awaits if they can get past Stanford. Oklahoma, Nebraska, Memphis, and Seton Hall are on the other side of the bracket.
After that, they drive to Memphis and the FedEx Forum. There’s also a trip to Stillwater for the Big 12-SEC Challenge at the end of January. Memphis should be towards the top of the AAC again this season, and Oklahoma State is always tough defensively under Mike Boynton.
|Jan 7||Away||Mississippi State||53||L|
|Jan 17||Away||South Carolina||78||L|
|Feb 11||Home||South Carolina||78||W|
|Feb 18||Home||Mississippi State||53||W|
|Feb 28||Home||Texas A&M||45||W|
A friendly home-and-home schedule is working in the Rebels’ favor: Mississippi State, Missouri, Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina. That’s eight games against programs that made a coaching change this offseason and four in Oxford. And given that State, UGA, and Carolina are forecasted to finish behind Ole Miss, Davis’ team could swipe a couple of road wins.
Let’s say the Rebels split those ten games. Then, they’ll need to take advantage of visits by Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. How they fare in those contests may dictate where they end up. It’s always risky reading too much into a conference opener, but picking off the Vols might be a sign Davis team ends up exceeding expectations.
Why are the Rebels slotted so low with many intriguing pieces on the roster?
Good question, dear reader.
Without a doubt, Ole Miss possesses potential. Murrell’s a headliner, and Ruffin could also enjoy the limelight—if he’s healthy. White might be ready to take a step forward at wing, and there’s flexibility with personnel in the front court.
But this comes down to Davis putting it all together. We can all admit last season was a trainwreck of injuries. But were those completely behind the Rebels slipping to 117th from 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency? And if you highlight close losses, 8 which came by double-digits, that’s worth noting. Missouri, who finished 137th in KenPom, also swept Ole Miss in three meetings.
Those results usually show a locker room struggling to hold things together. Regardless of injuries, you can show up and defend. And Ole Miss just didn’t.
Six players returned this season, while six more entered the transfer portal. But did the right ones stick around? Chances are that Slatten and Van Der Heijden won’t leave a bruise. But Joiner, Rodriguez, and Hunter all had value, especially as three of the Rebels’ better defenders on a team that struggled to do just that— defend.
If Davis re-establishes Ole Miss’s defensive identity — a man-to-man look that uses the 1-3-1 as a curveball — there’s a chance it could earn an at-large bid come March. He’s also got athleticism along the front line, multiple ball-handlers, and a bona fide scorer in Murrell. You put all those things together, and it can work.
The schedule is also favorable enough that it’s easy to talk yourself into flipping four results, turning 7-11 into an 11-7 mark in the SEC. Still, it’s hard to put much stock into inconsistent teams. Kermit also won’t have the same short bench he experienced during an offseason tour of the Bahamas, where the Rebels were down four players. At full strength, Davis will face a more demanding task in calibrating his rotation.
If I’m completely honest, Davis is coming to a tipping point. He’s constructed a roster that shouldn’t be yo-yoing between 4-14 and 10-8. There’s also this factor: almost half the league changed coaches, including Mississippi State, Missouri and LSU. Two of those teams are Ole Miss’s permanent rivals. If you can’t finish above any of these teams in a year where they’re rebooting, it’s worth wondering whether Davis can get this program where his bosses want it to go.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
I feel confident that Ole Miss has its most-talented roster since the SEC expanded to 14 teams. Murrell could be a first-round draft pick if he puts it all together. If he’s healthy, Ruffin is as good as any point guard in the league. And with a cadre of bigs, Davis could roll bodies on the interior to make life tough on even the best frontcourts in the SEC.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
Many of Ole Miss’s defensive issues might still be around, because Davis held on to players who struggle to guard. Now, he’s also got a roster of 14 players where everyone expects minutes. How will he define roles and hold guys accountable? It’s tough to blend high-usage up-transfers with highly rated prep recruits, and if things go south, might Davis be done in Oxford?
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.
* - 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.