The 9th-seeded Oklahoma Sooners are preparing for a bout against the 8th-seeded Ole Miss Rebels in the opening round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. To make matters more interesting, the trajectory of both teams’ seasons somewhat mirror one another, from hot starts to cool finishes. A win for OU would even the 1-2 overall series record, which currently leans in favor of the Rebels. So what’s the rundown on Mississippi?
Coming into the 2018-19 season, Ole Miss was picked by the media to finish 14th aka dead last in the SEC. First year head coach Kermit Davis did a remarkable job of proving the preseason polls wrong, leading his Rebels to a 20-12 overall record and a 10-8 regular season conference record — the latter being good enough for 7th in the SEC standings. For his efforts, he was named the 2019 SEC Coach of the Year.
Ole Miss saw its best stretch of basketball in the non-conference, though the competition was largely overmatched from a sheer talent level at times. From late November to mid January, the Rebels won 10 consecutive games, including back-to-back wins over ranked Auburn and Mississippi State squads.
After starting the season 13-2, the Rebels were inconsistent down the stretch, going 7-10 in the final 17 contests, including losses in four of the last five games. Nevertheless, this has already been a successful campaign in Davis’ inaugural year as Mississippi’s head coach, and arguably the most promising season for the program since 2014-15.
Terence Davis, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler are the three cogs that make the Rebels go. Ole Miss is a guard-laden squad, and these three play complimentary style basketball with each other. Tyree leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game, which ranks third in the SEC. Davis is second on the team in scoring at 15.1, but leads the team in rebounds and assists. Last but not least, Shuler is third in scoring, and is tied with Davis for team-high honors in steals. The Rebels are at their best when the ball flows through this group early and often.
Ole Miss might have some trouble protecting the rim against the Sooners on Friday. The Rebels rank 13th in the SEC in blocks per game (3.63) and 12th in rebounds (34.3). These align with areas where OU also happens to struggle, but perhaps the Rebels’ lack of proficiency will mitigate those shortcomings to some degree. Like OU, Ole Miss doesn’t exactly have a ton of interior depth. As has been the case all season, forwards Bruce Stevens and KJ Buffen and center Dominik Olejniczak will be tasked with giving their team an inside presence on both ends of the court while also staying out of foul trouble.
Defensively, Ole Miss ranks 65th in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rating, which would put them at eighth in the Big 12. Considering what OU is accustomed to facing in its own conference, it might be a bit easier for the team to find something resembling a rhythm offensively.
Coach Davis’ team has also struggled with consistency in close-game situations this season, going 5-6 in games decided by six points or fewer. That’s not to say Oklahoma has been dynamite in close games this season either (obviously), but if it’s within a basket or two in the waning minutes, it could very well come down to coaching and player experience, both areas in which the Sooners should hold significant advantages.
Going back to the aforementioned 10-game winning streak the Rebels went on in the early part of the season, the final three games of that run were definitely a major highlight on the year. First was the road victory over Vanderbilt, which was particularly huge at the time considering it was a road win in conference play. Then Ole Miss hosted 11th ranked Auburn before burying the Tigers in an emphatic statement game.
After riding a momentous wave of confidence, it was time for a little in-state rivalry action. Ole Miss traveled to Starkville to take on No. 14 (at the time) Mississippi State, and after trailing through stretches of the game, the Rebels battled back to upset the Bulldogs on their homecourt. In college sports, it doesn’t get much better than that.
3. @TerenceDavisJr's Tip-In— Ole Miss Basketball (@OleMissMBB) January 13, 2019
2. @B_Hinson21's Trio of Triples
1. @Breety5's Game Winner
These are the 3 You Must See from our 10th win in a row, a victory over No. 14 MSU 24 hours ago. #HottyToddy pic.twitter.com/Zi4d3P6qH8
One of the worst defeats of Ole Miss’ season came on the road against South Carolina, a team who won’t be participating in the upcoming tournament festivities. The Rebels were in the game throughout, even leading by as many as 11 in the first half, but the Gamecocks never gave up. Still, the two were tied at 61 with six minutes remaining. SC then closed the game out on an 18-3 run, winning by a blown out margin in what realistically could have been a Mississippi victory.
Including that game, Ole Miss went on to lose five of their last seven contests, limping into the NCAA Tournament with a solid seeding and a bad taste in its mouth. Both the Rebels and the Sooners are looking for some form of redemption going into the tourney, and like the old adage says, winning cures all.
NCAA Tournament History
This year marks the ninth time Ole Miss has made the NCAA Tournament, and the school’s first appearance since 2015. In total, the Rebels are 5-8 in the Big Dance, with four of those losses occurring in the first round (‘81, ‘97, ‘98, ‘02). Their deepest run came in 2001 when they reached the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Arizona.
Now it wouldn’t be a Mississippi-in-March rundown if I didn’t bring this up, so let’s take a little trip down March Madness memory lane. In 1998, 4th-seeded Ole Miss took on the 13th-seeded Valparaiso in the tourney’s opening round. In the annals of college basketball history, this is simply known as “The Shot”.
Beyond Bryce Drew’s miracle make to seal the breathtaking upset, what’s particularly interesting about that game was the venue. The upstart Crusaders defeated the Rebels at The Myriad in Downtown Oklahoma City, which is now part of the Cox Convention Center. Perhaps OU can capture a little bit of that magic and take it to Columbia. Shoot, as fans of the Sooners already know, a little magic can go a long way.
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