OXFORD, Miss. — Tonight at 7:00 p.m., Middle Tennessee State arrives at the Pavilion and that spells opportunity for Ole Miss hoops. Later this week, opportunity comes knocking again in the form of the Memphis Tigers. In case you’re just now tuning in to Ole Miss basketball following the end of the 2016 football season, you should know just how well Andy Kennedy has his new group of Rebels playing.
For starters, the team is off to a 5-1 record and has lost only once– to the 12th-ranked Creighton Blue Jays in the championship of the Paradis Jam. In that tournament based in the Virgin Islands, Ole Miss was really able to generate some momentum as the Rebels defeated two solid foes in Oral Roberts and Saint Joseph’s. Prior to going 2-1 in the Islands, Ole Miss defeated UT-Martin and UMass, and since the Rebels’ return they’ve notched a win over Montana on Thanksgiving Day.
Scoring threats emerge for the Rebels
Burnett: A huge scoring threat is emerging in Oxford and his name is Deandre Burnett. Thus far, the junior guard is leading all SEC players in scoring and also ranks in the top 15 in the nation at 23.2 points per game. Most impressive was his 41-point performance, on 9-of-12 shooting from 3-point range, in the win over Oral Roberts. However, one could also argue consistency has been his most notable trait, as he has scored 20-points or more in five of six games this season.
Saiz: Sebastian Saiz appears to be taking the step Andy Kennedy and staff expected him to make this offseason. He has posted three double-doubles through six games, and he is averaging 14.2 points and 11.2 rebounds in 32.3 minutes per game. After getting into foul trouble in the season-opener, Saiz has also responded in that area by allowing Kennedy to keep him on the floor due to his aggressive, but smart, play. The senior is important to the post situation for Ole Miss as the Rebels lack depth there as they work to bring along Marcanvis Hymon and Karlis Silins, but he is also important as an anchor of the team.
Around Burnett and Saiz, there has been bevy of production, mostly from the likes of Cullen Neal, Rasheed Brooks, Terence Davis and Justas Furmanavicius.
Neal: Cullen Neal brings a certain balance and savvy to the point guard spot that Kennedy has longed for since his first season when current staffer Todd Abernathy played the point. Not only is Neal the best distributor, with excellent court vision, but he can also shoot the three well–and he really gets after it on the defensive end. Perhaps the best part is how Neal fits in the backcourt with Burnett (more on that in a bit).
Brooks: Rasheed Brooks has been exactly what the Rebs have needed from the wing in year two, a better and more consistent scorer. Putting the ball on the floor is an area in which the senior has vastly improved, and that has allowed him to score inside and outside the 3-point line, making him more capable of consistently getting buckets.
Davis: Terence Davis has shown that as his focus has been fully shifted to hoops for over a year now, he has the potential to be one of the most explosive players in the SEC. Not only is he a dynamite defender who can swipe the ball with the best of them, but he has proven to be an adept scorer as well. Davis has show the ability to get to the rim, get his shot off the dribble and even knock down catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
Furmanavicius: Justas Furmanavicius has been a guy that has wowed with offensive rebounds, big-time defensive plays and occasional bursts of impressive skill on the offensive end. Energy has been the key for the first-year Reb from Lithuania.
Scouting tonight’s game with Middle Tennessee
Looking at tonight’s contest, Ole Miss is sure to be challenged by Middle Tennessee, who holds a 6-1 record. A win over the Kermit Davis-led Blue Raiders could go a long way towards helping the Rebels build a resume worthy of an NCAA tournament bid come March. JaCorey Williams leads the Blue Raiders averaging 21.6 points per game and will be a chore to chase around for Rebel defenders. Meanwhile, Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts are averaging 14 and 13.6 points per game, respectively, and should also factor in big tonight.
The series is tied 4-4 between the two programs, with Ole Miss having taken the most recent meeting back in 2013. Before that win, in Oxford, however, the Rebels had dropped four straight to MTSU. Additionally, Ole Miss holds a 2-1 home court advantage in the series.
Tubby and the Tigers headed to Oxford
On Saturday at noon, Tigers’ first-year head coach Tubby Smith will bring Memphis to Oxford. Smith has guided the Tigers to a 5-1 record through six games this season and will likely pick up win number six tonight in the FedEx forum versus another Mississippi foe, Jackson State. The only loss for Memphis this season came at the hands of Providence, though the Tigers did beat Iowa in their last match on the hardwood.
As is customary, the Tigers have a roster loaded with talent and potential, led by brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson. Dedric averages 22.8 points per game, while K.J. averages right at 14 points per contest. Markel Crawford (12.2) and Craig Randall III (11.7) also average double figures in points per game.
Last season, Ole Miss gained a huge win over Memphis on the road, but in the process lost Sebastian Saiz for seven games with the unfortunate injury to his eye that plagued him for most of the second half of last season. This season will likely produce another hard-fought battle, as Memphis is a top-100 team, according to KenPom.com, sitting at No. 85.
Neal and Burnett form a solid backcourt duo
Neal and Burnett are proving to be a solid backcourt duo for Kennedy’s Rebels–and they’re getting better each game.
Neal is a guy who understands what being a true point guard is all about, and sometimes that means not dominating the ball. When Burnett has been hot, Neal understands it is best to let the Miami transfer operate from the point spot. That doesn’t limit Neal, though, as he is good at moving without the ball and shooting off the catch. Additionally, Neal makes his presence felt on both ends of the floor.
As those two guys continue to gel and get better, look for Ole Miss, as a team, to begin doing so also. As big of a factor as Saiz has and will be this season, the two guys in the backcourt will ultimately determine how good this Rebel squad can be.
(Feature image credit: Josh McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics)