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SEC Basketball Preview: #10 Ole Miss Rebels

Previewing the No. 10 team in the SEC, the Ole Miss Rebels.

Syndication: The Clarion-Ledger Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger / USA TODAY NETWORK

Imagine running off the most successful head coach in program history after giving him a shoestring budget for the better part of 12 years right after you opened a new building that replaced a dilapidated barn which should have been replaced probably 20 years prior.

Then imagine hiring a guy to replace him whose roster construction at a mid-major mirrored exactly what the previous guy did. Then imagine being surprised when the results you wanted didn’t follow and you had to fire the new guy after five seasons, three of which finished with sub-.500 records and sub-KenPom top 100 finishes. Meanwhile, the last guy goes to a CUSA school and records two top 50 finishes in three years and nearly wins 30 games last season after making the NCAA Tournament two years ago.

If there was ever a case study of College Administrators getting in their own way, it’s been at Ole Miss and its basketball program over the years. And now after jettisoning Kermit Davis, the program has turned to disgraced former Texas head coach Chris Beard in hopes of reviving excitement in Oxford. Will it work?


Previous SEC Previews:

Ole Miss Preview

#10 Ole Miss Rebels

Last Season: 12 - 21 (3-15 in conference) No. 122 KenPom

My Prediction: 20 - 11 (8-10, 10th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 7.8 - 10.2 (10th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 10th in conference

KenPom Projection: 15-16 (6-12 in conference) No. 82

Syndication: The Clarion-Ledger Barbara Gauntt/Mississippi Clarion Ledger / USA TODAY NETWORK

HEAD COACH: Chris Beard | 1st Season

I’m going to be blunt here, Ole Miss should not have hired Chris Beard. It’s bad that Beard is already working in college basketball after how things ended at Texas. I’ll link here to a Texas Tribune article that has details and the fact that the case was dismissed. It was an ugly incident, and while the case was dismissed, the report from the night of the incident was ugly enough that it should have made any respectable College Administration hesitant to hire Beard. At least not without more time for discovery, perhaps allowing Beard to pursue some kind of therapeutic help. The incident was enough for Texas to fire who is arguably one of the two or three most accomplished coaches in college basketball over the last 5 or 6 years.

Sticking strictly with basketball, Beard moved quickly up the ranks. He was shot out of a cannon from the Division 2 ranks when he landed the Arkansas-Little Rock job in 2015 and turned that program into a 30-game winner in just one season and they finished ranked 56th in KenPom. The white-hot performance in Little Rock helped him land the Texas Tech job where he helped the Red Raiders to an Elite 8 in year 2 and a Final Four in year 3. Then in 2021, he left Lubbock to take the job in Austin, where he lasted about a year and a half before the fateful night on December 12th when the police were dispatched to his home. A suspension followed, about 3 weeks after Texas fired Beard. UT was ranked 4th in KenPom the night he was suspended, 10th the night he was fired, and finished 5th.

There’s no questioning Beard's coaching acumen or his ability to win at a high level. From a strict basketball coaching perspective, he’s quite likely one of the five best coaches in the sport. But there’s a reason he’s at Ole Miss now and not at Texas. He can win in Oxford, but the job pressures for him both on and off the court are going to be very high right away. And judging how he handled things at Texas it’s a question whether this is going to work out. Beard burns white hot. It’s propelled him to the heights of the sport, it’s also caused him to crash. Maybe Oxford is the place he can learn to balance it all.

Seat Temp: COLD

ole miss 10 year look 2023

Things were looking pretty good for Ole Miss for a while under Andy Kennedy. But it was also at a time when the rest of the league wasn’t really spending much on basketball. Once the SEC Network came online, most of the league shifted focus to make sure basketball was more competitive and Kennedy’s roster building approach became a bit antiquated and it became more difficult to win at that high of a level. The problem with hiring Kermit Davis is he and Kennedy had very similar backgrounds with how they built rosters, only the Rebels admin kicked in more money for Davis and his staff. He brought in better talent but wasn’t able to make it all work as a winner.

If there’s good news with Chris Beard it's that he’s won with small and big budgets. He’s won at non-traditional powerhouses and at a place like Texas where winning conference championships is the regular expectation. So he should be able to fit whatever roster he needs to squeeze out wins at Ole Miss.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Daeshun Ruffin transfer 11 15.26% 4.71% 3.54% 4.92%
Amaree Abraham transfer 33 52.18% 11.90% 8.24% 12.43%
Myles Burns graduation 33 66.99% 11.90% 17.29% 12.57%
Jayveous McKinnis graduation 32 40.53% 6.56% 8.89% 5.85%
Robert Allen graduation 33 39.77% 6.56% 7.91% 7.45%
James White transfer 29 30.00% 5.16% 3.74% 5.85%
Josh MBalla graduation 16 11.05% 2.42% 2.60% 2.58%
Tye Fagan graduation 28 21.05% 3.82% 3.02% 3.75%
Theo Akwuba graduation 31 26.99% 3.55% 3.96% 4.14%
Malique Ewin transfer 14 6.47% 0.90% 1.26% 0.97%
62.06% 57.48% 60.45% 60.51%

Enter a new coach, exit most of the roster. The good news for Beard is Kermit Davis had a pretty experienced roster with six players slated for graduation. Myles Burns was an NAIA transfer who started 30 of the 33 games he played in last year. Of all the inbound transfers last year Burns wasn’t expected to have the biggest impact but he was an energy player and one of the few wings who played hard on that end of the floor.

Tye Fagan finished out his career on the full bell curve. He averaged 2.5 points as a freshman at Georgia, then 9.1 points as a junior, and then 3.0 points as a graduate senior at Ole Miss. Theo Akwuba transferred in for his final season from Louisiana and saw bit action with 6 starts. Josh MBalla came in from Buffalo with high expectations but he struggled to stay healthy and only saw action in 16 games. Robert Allen was a pretty underrated player for Ole Miss after transferring in from Samford. A reliable rebounder and defense, he had the ability to knock down jumpers while not pouting over minutes. Last of the graduates is Jayveous McKinnis, a solidly built Jackson State transfer who was a spot starter and minimal contributor.

Daeshun Ruffin has to be one of the most snake-bitten basketball players in college. One of Kermit Davis’ best recruits, Ruffin couldn’t get on the floor due to a variety of injuries so he transferred to Jackson State... where he got injured and will miss the rest of the season. Amaree Abraham is another 4-star guard whose promising freshman season led him to become a hot commodity on the transfer market, so he’ll play his sophomore season at Georgia Tech. Then there’s James White, a skilled scorer who will suit up next year for UAB. Last of the transfers out is Malique Ewin who transferred to a Junior College after a brief commitment to South Florida. Ewin was involved in a fatal traffic accident in early January that prevented him from seeing the floor for the remainder of the season.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Matthew Murrell SR WING 30 77.52% 19.44% 50.17% 16.50%
Jaemyn Brakefield SR CF 33 72.03% 16.48% 63.86% 19.16%
TJ Caldwell SO CG 31 40.15% 6.60% 43.88% 3.90%
37.94% 42.52% 39.56%
Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

Matthew Murrell | SENIOR | WING

Any new coach will immediately determine which players he wants to keep around, and regardless of who Ole Miss hired the top priority would be to keep Matthew Murrell in uniform. Murrell tested the NBA draft waters and there was a chance he would’ve stayed in the draft, but now Chris Beard gets the benefit of Murrell’s talent in his first season in Oxford. And if there’s any one player who could jumpstart what Beard is trying to accomplish there, it’s him.

Murrell has al the tools you’re looking for in a high scoring wing, but the one things he’s lacked so far has been consistency. His jumpshot looks pure, but it’s goes in sporadically. He’s also prone to rely a little too much on his inconsistent jumper, and less on his ability to attack the rim. If Beard can unlock Murrell and turn him into an All-SEC player with efficiency on offense, it’s the first step towards revamping the Ole Miss program.

T.J. Caldwell is a combo guard who played 40% of the available minutes as a freshman last year. He only averaged about 5 points a game, and his offensive game needs some work, but he’s got the frame and talent to make an impact this season in a reserve role.

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

Jaemyn Brakefield | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

There were two fixtures for Ole Miss last year, the first was Murrell, the second was Jaemyn Brakefield. At 6’8 and 220 pounds Brakefield is a skilled combo forward who started out at Duke before coming back home to play at Ole Miss. He upped his output to 11.1 points per game, but where Brakefield is the most valuable is with his versatility and skill on offense. He shoots the ball well from distance, and handles it well off the bounce giving him the ability to take bigger post players to the rim. He’s a good passer as well, with a 12.1% assist rate (that’s very good for a big).

With Brakefield and Murrell, Beard has two talented and skilled players for which he can build around.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Rashaud Marshall 6'8 220 ★★★★ 90 POST
FR Cameron Barnes 6'9 195 ★★★ NA POST
FR Jacob Gazzo 6'8 215 NR NA POST
SO Austin Nunez 6'2 170 TRANSFER Arizona State CG
JR Jaylen Murray 5'11 170 TRANSFER St. Peter's PG
JR Brandon Murray 6'5 210 TRANSFER Georgetown WING
SR Moussa Cisse 7'0 230 TRANSFER Oklahoma St. POST
G-SR Allen Flanigan 6'6 215 TRANSFER Auburn CG
G-SR Jamarion Sharp 7'5 235 TRANSFER Western Kentucky POST

With so little coming back, it was time to hit the portal for Beard and his staff. The Rebels have six new arrivals via the portal led by 7’5” Jamarion Sharp. At Western Kentucky, Sharp was lightly used offensively but was a menace on defense with the nation's best block rate, and he gobbles up around 20% of the defensive misses. Sharp will play a lot in the middle if Oklahoma State transfer Moussa Cisse doesn’t receive a transfer waiver. Cisse is a former 5-star recruit who started at Memphis and burned his one-year transfer to go to Oklahoma State. Under Mike Boynton, Cisse was one of the top defensive centers in the country and had a little more responsibility on offense than Sharp did at WKU.

One of the top wings available in the portal, Brandon Murray from Georgetown, also needs a transfer waiver to play this year. Murray started at LSU and then transferred to Georgetown and averaged 14 points a contest last year. If Murray’s waiver is granted he’ll be an immediate impact on defense. If he’s not eligible, Ole Miss will turn to Allen Flanigan to pick up the slack. Flanigan broke out as a sophomore at Auburn but had an achilles tear the next offseason and hasn’t been the same player since then. He still provided about 10 points a game for Auburn last season.

Austin Nuñez is a former 4-star recruit who is a skilled scorer but had a limited role as a freshman at Arizona State. He’s a bit more of a combo guard than a true point guard, so the point guard duties will likely be handled primarily by St. Peter’s transfer Jaylen Murray. Murray was a backup on the Elite 8 St. Peter’s team and took over the primary role last season while chipping in 12.5 points per game.

With the freshmen signees, Beard went in on post players. The leader should be Rashaud Marshall, a physical and hard-playing 6’8 forward. Marshall has a good shot to play early. Cameron Barnes has size and mobility but is a bit of a project, as is Jacob Gazzo who committed to Kermit Davis and staff and stuck with the program.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jaylen Murray Austin Nunez
(2) Combo Guard Allen Flanigan TJ Caldwell
(3) Wing Matthew Murrell Brandon Murray
(4) Combo Forward Jaemyn Brakefield Rashaud Marshall Jacob Gazzo
(5) Post Jamarion Sharp Moussa Cisse Cameron Barnes

So the big question here revolves heavily around Brandon Murray and Moussa Cisse. It’s hard not to see them starting if they’re eligible, but with the uncertainty, we’ll just adapt with the information we have at hand. If the NCAA sticks to its guns they shouldn’t be eligible, although I can see a reasonable case for Murray more so than Cisse.

I see a little bit of an issue with the point guard spot, but this roster 2-4 is as good as any roster in the league. And the defensive prowess of Jamarion Sharp should be good enough to anchor the Rebels' back line even if Cisse misses on a waiver. After Sharp, the depth on the interior gets light, and Beard is likely going to have to play a bit of small ball using either Brakefield or Marshall at the five spot. And despite missing a point guard there are enough guards who should be okay in that spot, like Caldwell, Flanigan and Nunez.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 20-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 15-16

Syndication: The Commercial Appeal Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Alabama State 353 W
Nov 10 Home Eastern Washington 158 W
Nov 14 Home Detroit Mercy 289 W
Nov 17 Home Sam Houston State 140 W
Nov 22 Away Temple 170 W
Nov 28 Home NC State 61 W
Dec 2 Home Memphis 32 L
Dec 5 Home Mount St. Mary's 259 W
Dec 10 Away Central Florida 72 W
Dec 16 Neutral California 146 W
Dec 19 Home Troy 221 W
Dec 23 Neutral Southern Miss 134 W
Dec 31 Home Bryant 224.00 W
avg 173.77 12-1

If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about Chris Beard is he schedules like he’s scared to lose his job. Even at Texas last season, with a preseason top 10 team he played three tough games and nothing on the road. And this season is looking pretty light. Eastern Washington is a good Big Sky team, but Temple is rebuilding, NC State could be teetering, and California was one of the worst high majors last season. UCF hasn’t been bad, but they haven’t been good, either. The toughest game is Memphis, which was already scheduled. Penny Hardaway should have another good team there, and that’s the most likely loss here. I think NC State is a bit more of a toss-up, but I expect Ole Miss should win that game since it’s at home.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Away Tennessee 8 L
Jan 10 Home Florida 39 W
Jan 13 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Jan 17 Away LSU 47 L
Jan 20 Away Auburn 15 L
Jan 24 Home Arkansas 14 W
Jan 27 Away Texas A&M 24 L
Jan 30 Home Mississippi State 27 W
Feb 3 Home Auburn 15 W
Feb 6 Away South Carolina 66 L
Feb 13 Away Kentucky 18 L
Feb 17 Home Missouri 55 W
Feb 21 Away Mississippi State 27 L
Feb 24 Home South Carolina 66 W
Feb 28 Home Alabama 10 W
Mar 2 Away Missouri 55 L
Mar 5 Away Georgia 57 L
Mar 9 Home Texas A&M 24 L
avg 35.89 8-10

I’m not sure there are many teams who want to open conference play on the road at Tennessee, but somebody has to and the league picked Ole Miss. They are rewarded with a couple of winnable home games, and I think that January 10th matchup against Florida could be pretty telling about both teams.

Other than having Texas A&M as a part of their home and home teams for conference play, Ole Miss could have gotten a worse draw. South Carolina should provide two opportunities for wins, Auburn could be a bit rocky with a freshman point guard, Missouri is turning over a lot of production, and then there’s Mississippi State who brings back everybody but all those guys couldn’t score last season. You then get Alabama and Arkansas at home, along with Vanderbilt and the aforementioned Florida game and there’s real reason to think the Rebels finish better than the projected 8-10 record they have here.

OVERVIEW

The Ole Miss administration gambled on Chris Beard. They gambled that some early negative press would fade as Beard flashed back to the coach he was, and likely still is, prior to his ouster at Texas. To be frank, the negative press wasn’t even all that bad. Being hired at a school most in the college basketball world don’t often think about, at a time when the focus is squarely on the NCAA Tournament, and a host of other hirings and firings is a good way to fly under the radar.

So now Beard has to go about being Chris Beard, in a place that has never had a coach with a resume quite like his. There aren’t many program-changing coaches out there, but I believe Beard is one of them. You, of course, have to throw out the caveat that he has to keep his nose clean off the court. So I’m not going to pretend like I fully understand what happened between Beard and his fiancee last December... but enough happened that the police were called and Texas felt he was unemployable beyond that point. Prior to his run-in with the law, Beard had a bit of a reputation as a drinker but he had not run afoul with it before then. So Ole Miss is gambling that Beard is going to be able to control himself and not get in trouble.

Maybe that’s the difference between Texas and Ole Miss; the Rebels can afford to be riskier in their hires because less is expected. Texas doesn’t really have that luxury. But be sure here, Chris Beard is a fantastic basketball coach.

NCAA Basketball: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

He’s getting a little bit of a head start because Ole Miss really does have a talented roster. The recruiting under Kermit Davis was never really the problem in Oxford; it was with the lack of wins with that talent. Davis just struggled to get the talent to play together and buy into his systems. His defenses were leaky, and offensively they were too reliant on a few hands versus working with a concept to get easy looks. His first year they had a good offensive team, but that was mostly Andy Kennedy holdovers. Beyond that season they never fielded a top 100 offense.

Defense was also an issue with Davis, and after once fielding a top 30 defense, every other year was mediocre to poor.

Defense shouldn’t be a problem for Beard. His worst defense statistically was his first club at Texas Tech which ranked 56th in KenPom. Every other finish at Texas and Texas Tech was top 20. Offensively they were never elite but they also never finished below 50th. If you finish top 50 in each category you’re very likely an NCAA Tournament team.

For the Rebels the only real question with their quality is at point guard, further questions remain about the eligibility of two players. But if they can find reasonable ball handling, the rest of the roster should have enough shotmaking and rugged defense to make the Rebels a contender for a quick turnaround and an NCAA tournament bid.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

As a basketball coach, Chris Beard has been awesome. His worst season was his lone season at UALR when he finished 56th in KenPom.com. At both Texas and Texas Tech his league record has never been worse than his first season at Tech when he went 6-12 in a league where no team finished below 70th. So the expectation should be that Beard will get Ole Miss competitive and do it fast.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

If you’re like me, maybe you kind of hate that the Ole Miss administration hired Beard so quickly. It bothers me that there was no redemption tour or mea culpa on Beard's part, and he just took another job that will pay him millions and moved on. Fans deserve more accountability than that, so there’s at least part of me that hopes this fails for those reasons. As for basketball reasons, if Beard doesn’t get Murray and Cisse waivers the bench gets pretty thin. And with no known ball-handling options this season could be an adventure.


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 team's 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 as well.

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.