As the Alabama Crimson Tide (13-6, 5-2 SEC) head west across the state border for their match-up with the Ole Miss Rebels (10-9, 3-4 SEC) tonight, Rebels head coach Andy Kennedy finds himself in an unfamiliar position: the possibility of finishing the season with a losing record. He’s never finished a season in his 12 years in Oxford with more losses than wins, nor has he ever done worse than 7-9 in conference play. Yet, with 12 games left to play this season, and an increasingly tough conference slate ahead of him, it seems likely that this will be the rockiest season of Kennedy’s underrated career. Meanwhile, the Tide are starting to hit their stride. Winners of 4 straight SEC games, Alabama has finally started getting what they expected out of everyone not named Collin Sexton or Donta Hall, and the defense has improved immensely.
All of this is just to say that...
The Crimson Tide haven’t won in Oxford since 2009, Mark Gottfried’s final season in Tuscaloosa. Kennedy is 7-1 at home overall against Alabama, and he always seems to find a way to crush the Tide’s NCAA Tournament dreams in the process. Sure, things aren’t going great for Ole Miss right now, but they are a talented group with a number of guards who can get hot and shoot anyone out of the gym. Guess where current SEC leader, #20 Florida, got that one ‘L’ in their 6-1 SEC record from?
Alabama has an incredibly tough final month of the season ahead of them. The good thing about playing such a tough schedule is that it means there are very few opportunities for the Tide to pick up a “bad” or “ugly” loss. But it also means that it will be tough to string together many wins. If Ole Miss upsets the Tide tonight (Vegas currently considers the Rebels a slight favorite actually) and goes on to finish with a rare losing record, and Alabama isn’t able to make up for it in February with a couple of good wins, Kennedy may just doom the Tide again.
Do not take this team lightly.
- POINT 6’2 Deandre Burnett (14.3 PPG, 4.8 APG, 2.1 RPG)
- GUARD 6’4 Markel Crawford (9.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- GUARD 6’4 Terence Davis (14.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
- POST 6’8 Bruce Stevens (10.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.6 APG)
- POST 7’0 Dominik Olejniczak (4.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 BPG)
Part of the Rebels’ issues this year is that they’ve not been able to develop any consistency in their rotation. They’ve had 11 different starting line-ups this season, mostly because when they play bigger teams (like Alabama), they are forced to play some bigger guys who wouldn’t normally get as many minutes if the Rebels were able to just go with their best players. That is certainly the case for the seven-foot tall Olejniczak. A 57.6% scorer, the product from Poland is forced to log more than the 15.6 MPG average Kennedy would prefer from him because Ole Miss has a serious lack of both size and post defense. Olejniczak doesn’t do much of anything well (9.6% REB%, 105.6 DRtg), but his size requires that he be on the court against the likes of Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens. Stevens is in a similar situation (12.3% REB%, 106.5 DRtg), except he’s much more effective on the offensive end of the court (54.3%/21.4%/74.0%), and he’s been playing much better basketball in recent weeks.
The back-court is where the Rebels have done pretty much all of their damage this season. Senior point guard Burnett has once again quietly been one of the best distributors of the ball in the conference, with a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and a 31.5% AST%. His defense (114.0 DRtg) and rebounding (3.9% REB%) have been nearly non-existent though, and while he’s still scoring at a solid rate (40.6%/38.6%/82.7%), he’s had issues at times getting the ball in the basket himself. Davis and Crawford have also had varying issues with inconsistency shooting the ball (Davis: 42.0%/34.1%/69.2%; Crawford: 38.7%/27.9%/73.8%), but much like Burnett, they are both more than capable of getting hot and planting dagger after dagger in their opponent.
- GUARD 6’2 Breein Tyree (10.4 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.3 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
- GUARD 6’2 Devontae Shuler (7.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.4 SPG)
- WING 6’6 Justas Furmanavicius (3.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
- POST 6’6 Marcanvis Hymon (5.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.1 BPG)
Tyree is a usual starter for Ole Miss, but when they’ve faced bigger teams they have instead utilized him off of the bench as a prototypical scoring sixth man. While the three guards listed as tonight’s starters have had consistency issues scoring, Tyree hasn’t had many problems himself (41.1%/40.0%/68.6%), though he could use some work on the line. Shuler is the only freshman that sees significant minutes, which should be alarming for a program that seems to be headed in the wrong direction right now. It should be equally alarming for the Rebels that Shuler is second only to Davis on the defensive end of the court right now (105.0 DRtg), because A) a freshman should not be one of your better defenders on a team full of veterans, and B) a 105.0 DRtg is still not very good.
Hymon is an undersized 6’6 post player that has started 13 games thus far this season, which just goes to show how badly the Rebels are hurting for size. A 60.6% scorer, Hymon hasn’t let his lack of size make him ineffective on the offensive end, and he leads the team with a solid 14.4% REB%, but bigger posts that can match his quickness and athleticism can really stifle his impact. Furmanavicius is an interesting case because, for whatever reason, he’s getting less playing time this season compared to last despite providing the Rebels with a 6’6 wing who can shoot the basketball (47.6%/41.7%/80.0%) while rebounding and playing defense as well as anyone else on the team. His lack of minutes is honestly bewildering.
Three Keys to Victory
- Contain the Guards. An Ole Miss basketball victory in 2018 usually looks something like this: the Rebels get a few of their guards going, spread the defense out to negate the disadvantage in the low-post, and try to create extra possessions by causing turnovers. If Alabama can limit the damage Burnett, Davis, and Tyree cause then the Rebels are going to have a tough time breaking 60 points. Because it seems unlikely they will be able to get much of anything from the post.
- Dominate the Glass. The Rebels’ three conference victories came in games where they didn’t get decimated on the boards. With the size advantage Alabama has at nearly every position, and big men like Hall, Giddens, Galin Smith, and Alex Reece, there is no reason the Tide shouldn’t be at least +10 in rebounding tonight. If Ole Miss manages to keep the rebounding margin close, or even win it outright, Alabama will be in trouble.
- Keep the Offense Moving. Alabama’s fist half performance against Mississippi State the other night was a thing of beauty. With Sexton out and Hall limited, Alabama had arguably its best half of offense all season because they were moving the basketball. Not just the basketball either. No, there was a ton of off-ball movement that allowed for open jumpers and good looks near the rim. Then the second half came along and the team went back to playing iso-ball again. Ole Miss’s post game and inconsistencies on offense from their guards have been issues for them this season, sure; but the number one reason why the Rebels may be sitting out this postseason is because they have flat-out stunk on defense. Arkansas nearly hung a hundred on them on Saturday. They don’t play good help defense, they can’t protect the paint or the rim, and they are often out of position trying to make a big play instead of playing sound defense. Keep the offense moving and take those easy baskets Ole Miss loves to give up.
With so many great teams still on the horizon for Alabama, it’s easy to look past the 10-9 Rebels. Do so at your own peril. Andy Kennedy is a good coach, and the Rebels have a couple of guards that are capable of shooting their opponents out of the gym. Considering Alabama’s struggles in Oxford over the years, the Tide better not look past this group. Sexton remains a game-time decision, and Avery Johnson is usually pretty tight-lipped about injuries, so hope for the best in that regard.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.