Undefeated Rebels face Creighton in championship game of Paradise Jam
Sebastian Saiz and the Rebels’ hoops team used perhaps their most impressive performance of the season–an 81-68 victory over St. Joe’s last night– to advance to the championship round of the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. (Click here for box score.)
Creighton followed the Rebels’ blowout with one of their own, over North Carolina State, to claim the other spot in the championship game. The nationally-ranked Blue Jays even set a new record for points in the Paradise Jam contest, with 112 points.
A look at the Rebels’ first four games
Let’s take a step back and look at what has worked for the Rebels through four games, and then take a look at what the match-up versus Creighton could bring.
Though 81 points marked the lowest offensive output of the season for the Rebels, allowing just 68 points and winning comfortably were positive signs for Andy Kennedy’s new group. In the first three games this season Ole Miss had been prone to giving up leads and making games closer than they had to be. However, Ole Miss held firm to a solid lead for most of the second half against St. Joe’s last night, a team who returned 12 players from last year’s squad.
Saiz led the way with a career-high 26 points, to go with 12 boards, and Deandre Burnett added 20 on the heels of his 41-point performance Friday. It was the second double-double of the week for Saiz, who posted 22 points and 19 rebounds against UMass. Justas Furmanavicius showed the kind of energy he can bring to this year’s squad with his 10 rebounds in 25 minutes on the floor.
Furmanavicius isn’t the only player to have begun settling into a role early in the season. Burnett has established himself, at least for now, as the new scorer in town. He’s scored 20 or more points in three of his first four games in red and blue, and thus is averaging 24 points per contest.
Terence Davis has shown that after a big jump from year one he is ready to be a notable contributor his second year in the program. Davis is averaging 12 points, 3.5 rebounds and more than a steal per game so far in 2016.
Additionally, Rasheed Brooks and Cullen Neal have also show they should figure consistently into the scoring equation each game. Brooks has scored in double figures each game, while Neal has in three.
So far Ole Miss has been pretty good all-around. At times I’ve felt as though I’m watching a team that contains the length and athleticism Kennedy needs to make a serious run in the NCAA tournament. Then there have been the times this team’s play concerned me greatly. Though they made it closer than it should have been in the first three wins versus UT-Martin, UMass and Oral Roberts, they have added four quality wins to start the season. Tonight, however, will unquestionably be their biggest challenge to date.
Saiz named SEC Player of the Week
Of course, you’re probably wondering when mention of Saiz will come and here it is, as it deserves to stand alone.
Though the two double-doubles for him this week are his only two of the season, the senior is averaging 16 points and 10 boards per game on this young season. While foul trouble plagued the Rebel big man in the season-opener versus UT-Martin, he has, for the most part, been the key contributor that Kennedy called him to be in the offseason. He’s been on the All-SEC pace most expected him to be, for sure.
In fact, on Monday, Saiz was named SEC Player of the Week by the league office after averaging 19.7 points and 12.3 rebounds in wins over UMass, Oral Roberts and Saint Joseph’s last week.
Paradise Jam championship game: Ole Miss vs. Creighton
In Creighton, the Rebels will face a team that is also 4-0 this season–one that moved from 22nd to 12th overall in the Associated Press Top 25 college hoops poll just today. Additionally, they rank number one in RPI, according to the NCAA.
Just having this game added to the schedule, by way of Ole Miss advancing this far in its first appearance in the Paradise Jam since 2011, is beneficial to the Rebels’ tournament resume. Playing the Blue Jays will have a positive impact on strength of schedule number come March. A win could be the beginning building block of an NCAA tournament resume for Ole Miss; in fact, it would likely give them a leg up at this juncture in the season.
Ole Miss and Creighton could potentially bring a high-scoring affair into the building tonight. The Rebels are averaging 88, while the Blue Jays are averaging nearly 96 points per game through four games each this season.
Marcus Foster and Cole Huff can really fill it up for the Blue Jays, while Ole Miss’ scoring options have been well noted. They could be led by any number of guys, including Burnett, Saiz, Davis or Neal. Both teams, however, will be playing their third game in four day, so legs could get heavy on both sides.
Creighton is looking to win its fourth regular-season tournament under head coach Greg McDermott, while Ole Miss is looking to move to 11-0 versus teams in the 2016 Paradise Jam field under Kennedy, which would mean moving to 2-0 versus Creighton.
Ole Miss and Creighton wrap up the 2016 Paradise Jam at 7:30 pm CST tonight on CBS Sports Network.
(Feature image credit: Josh McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics)