OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss men’s basketball left Wichita State Saturday bruised and battered following a 74-54 loss to the 24th ranked Shockers. The Rebels’ offensive struggles — as well as the hot shooting of Shocker sophomore Erik Stevenson, who torched the Rebels for 29 points on 9/15 shooting (including 5/11 from three) –were key factors in the loss.
This column takes a look at the Ole Miss offense as the Rebels enter SEC play tonight against A&M.
For those who don’t know and are wondering, “Why should I listen to this guy?” I am happy to provide a bit of background on myself. I worked as a basketball manager for Ole Miss from 2013-2017, helping out in all parts of operations from film and on-court drills, to some recruiting. I volunteered at University of Cincinnati while working towards my masters, interned at FastModel, the leading basketball digital playbook company, and am working towards a career in coaching. Long story short, I study the game and do my best to provide educated takes.
Now, enough about me.
One of the major issues that hampered Ole Miss’ ability to score (especially against a team like Wichita State that plays disciplined defense) was that the Rebels’ top two offensive threats, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler, specialize with the ball in their hands and shooting off the dribble and driving to the hoop, which is great when there is adequate spacing and players they can kick out to when the help defense is sound. But when the spacing is not there, and there is nobody to outlet to, it doesn’t always work out as well as Tyree and Shuler might find themselves forced to shoot over a huge big playing help or settle for a long 20-foot contested jumper.
In Saturday’s game, credit must certainly go to Wichita State’s stifling defense. Gregg Marshall routinely coaches some of the most disciplined teams I’ve ever seen, and there is a reason that Wichita State is a threat year after year, no matter the talent level. They not only pressured the ball, but when players moved past that pressure to get towards the rim, the help defense was just about perfect every time. Wichita State forced players to make decisions with the ball.
Additionally, the Ole Miss bigs had a hard time finishing around the rim Saturday, and when that happens the opponent’s defense can help even more aggressively against the guards, thus making it even more difficult for anybody to score. The best bigs know they have to keep a strong base and have one or two moves that can put the defense off balance when putting up a shot.
One way Ole Miss can learn from this game is to watch the film of the team that just beat them–and you can bet head coach Kermit Davis has had his players watching plenty of it. The Shockers do a fantastic job of recognizing space, timing attacks, and playing as a single unit to force a defense to over-help, then whipping the ball around until somebody has an open look. They take what the opponent’s defense gives them rather than force a shot. The Shockers stay calm under pressure and do not make many mistakes. They aren’t the biggest or the fastest team in the world — or even the most skilled— but they are routinely one of the smartest teams in the country.
The Rebels just need to trust their teammates and move the ball. When the first option isn’t there, they sometimes decide to shoot instead of passing to the next teammate and reversing the ball. Many of Ole Miss’ three point attempts come off the dribble, which is much more difficult to make than a catch and shoot opportunity. One suggestion is to run more off-ball screens for Blake Hinson and Austin Crowley, not as primary targets, but as players ready to catch a pass in the corner or at the top of the key as the secondary target. Perhaps experimenting Hinson as a temporary stretch four that sets screens then pops on a few possessions a game can open up driving (and kicking) opportunities for an Ole Miss team that struggles to find space to operate on the perimeter or the paint.
I would also like to see KJ Buffen be a bit more confident in shooting the three; the talented sophomore absolutely can draw the defense out to create space. In the heat of the moment in a game, taking a catch and shoot opportunity will often draw a defender to the perimeter, opening up passing opportunities on cuts or driving opportunities to the rim if the defender closes out too hard.
Yes, Saturday’s game against the Shockers was a tough loss for Ole Miss, but things can and likely will improve as the Rebels embark on SEC play. Good teams tend to stay “in the moment” and focus on day-to-day improvement. I feel confident the players in Coach Davis’ locker room will use this as an opportunity to say, “hey, we can play better if we trust each other and fix a few things.”
The good news is that this team plays hard and with effort for forty minutes, which is often the hardest thing to coach. They just need to learn how to use that effort productively, then they can right the ship. I firmly believe this will be done.
Next Up: Rebels face Aggies Tuesday night
Ole Miss travels to College Station to play Texas A&M Tuesday, January 7 at 8:00 p.m. The Aggies enter the game ranked atop the SEC in fewest personal fouls per game (14.5). Head coach Buzz Williams is in his first season at the helm of A&M, following a five-year stint at Virginia Tech where he led the Hokies to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Aggies are paced by Josh Nebo who leads the Aggies in scoring at 11.3, rebounds at 7.7 and blocks at 2.7 per game. Nebo recorded his third double-double in the last four games after a 10-point, 13-rebound performance at Arkansas (1/4).