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OXFORD, Miss. — The Ole Miss basketball team got a lot bigger on Tuesday. After bringing in Jayveous McKinnis and Myles Burns, Ole Miss still had some needs head coach Kermit Davis wanted to address. One of those was finding an interior presence to be an anchor in the paint. With transfer center Theo Akwuba’s commitment, the Rebels now have that anchor.
Akwuba chose Ole Miss over Iowa after announcing his final two yesterday, May 1st.
— Theo Akwuba🇳🇬 (@takwuba1) May 2, 2022
Iowa and Ole Miss were two known visits that Akwuba took and the decision to trim the list came after the Ole Miss visit. Prior to that, Akwuba had a top-five that also included North Carolina State, Penn State, and South Carolina.
This past season Akwuba averaged 9.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, and 2.0 BLK while starting in 18 of 25 games for the Ragin’-Cajuns. He missed nearly all of December with a foot injury and also missed time in January due to Covid-19.
The highlight of the season came from a monster performance against Arkansas State where Akwuba notched 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
Prior to last year, Akwuba earned honors as the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year for the 2020-2021 season. He started all 26 games that season and averaged 11.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, and added 2.6 BLK.
His 68 registered blocks placed him atop the Sun Belt and 8th nationally in total blocks. This wasn’t the only top-10 finish he had at the NCAA level as his 3.77 offensive rebounds per game was good to be 10th nationally.
In other categories, Akwuba finished in the NCAA top-25 was blocks per game (13th), total rebounds (22nd), and double-doubles (23rd).
😤 Can do this all day! Theo Akwuba with another one! 💪
📺 Watch live on ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/XoPFZP9bXK
— Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns® Men's Basketball (@RaginCajunsMBB) March 6, 2021
Originally hailing from Montgomery Alabama, Akwuba initially started his career at Portland. During his freshman season there, he started 26 of 30 potential contests while averaging 3.4 PPG and 4.0 RPG. A dip in minutes during his sophomore season prompted the move to Lafayette which proved to be beneficial.
Take one look and you can see why Akwuba is heralded as such a productive shot blocker. Standing at 6-foot-11, he has the size to anchor down low. The major draw however is the +7 wingspan he possesses which is 7’6″. For NBA prospects a good tell for defensive potential is having a +5 wingspan, so Akwuba more than fits the bill.
He has a very long frame, so keeping a low center of gravity when guarding the post is key for him. This can allow him to control the battle from the hip level. When he does this, he can force opposing bigs to take a shot from the mid-post instead of close by.
Pair that with his length and wingspan and he becomes a well-above-average rim protector who alters many shots. He is a good rebounder who knows how to use his length and really elevate up for rebounds on both ends. That also allows for a lot of potential tip-outs leading to breaks or second chances offensively.
He has an impressive ability to hit an outlet pass quickly to also start breaks. He did some hedging at Louisiana, and it will be interesting to see if Ole Miss looks to do that or have him play any drop coverage.
Offensively, Akwuba primarily scored mostly in the post or on dump-offs. He did step out as a screener some at Louisiana. Akwuba showed better touch over the course of his career. He didn’t show much in terms of a mid-range game, but both Romello White and Nysier Brooks each added that element throughout the course of their one season at Ole Miss.
In the paint, he really can get his shot off by elevating over opposing defenders. He goes to a hook shot a lot that has major extension. Akwuba shows really good quickness and can attack the basket from the high post. He will sit along the baseline to get easy buckets off of dump-offs, and can finish above the rim easily.
— Portland Pilots (@PortlandPilots) March 1, 2019
Two years ago, Ole Miss had one of the more efficient defenses in the SEC. That team really zoned in on locking down the interior and limiting the number of free throws opposing teams took.
This group took a physical toll on opponents with energy and physicality through the likes of White, KJ Buffen, Luis Rodriquez, and Robert Allen. Some of this may have been a factor of COVID, but the personnel was set to run things on the defensive end.
Last year’s team struggled to achieve that same result. The roster turnover and injuries are responsible for some of that. That group gave up 72.2 PPG in the conference compared to 65.4 PPG from the 2020-2021 group.
We aren’t here to dissect the reasoning behind those numbers, but to rather show where Ole Miss may end up next year — looking at the group of players the Rebels have coming in and how similar they may be to that 2020-2021 group.
This transfer class has an identity on defense. Myles Burns, while at Loyola, had more steals (158) than anyone else in college basketball and will likely be a threat atop the 1-3-1 defense. He was a four-time conference defensive player of the year in the SSAC.
Burns also added 8.8 rebounds over his four-year career at Loyola. There will be questions about competition level but his instincts and defensive acumen will translate.
Jayveous McKinnis, while at Jackson State, was a three-time defensive player of the year award winner. Playing mostly as a five, his rebounding numbers ranked highly in the NCAA multiple times. While being a tad undersized as a center and likely having to slide into a forward role or small ball center role, McKinnis has a high motor and defensive awareness. That awareness led to 2.9 BLK per game last year.
Now, Ole Miss has added Akwuba who has a long wingspan, can high point rebounds, and become an interior rim protector that we haven’t seen at Ole Miss in the Kermit era.
These are three guys who can play and who will look to impact the defensive end greatly. Amaree Abram and Daeshun Ruffin are good point-of-attack defenders who will help defensively on the backcourt as well. Let’s not forget that Ruffin averaged 2.7 STL per game in nine conference games last year.
I’m not much of a betting man, but if I were my guess is that this team will aim to keep teams in the mid to upper 60s as the defense will be its calling card.
Stay tuned to The Rebel Walk for all your men’s basketball news!
(Feature image graphic: Lee Ann Herring, The Rebel Walk)
TJ Oxley is a current MBA student at Ole Miss after having earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Toledo. He currently covers college hoops and the NBA Draft for the Basketball Society as well as all things Ole Miss for The Rebel Walk.