Preview: Ole Miss men’s basketball hosts Kentucky
OXFORD, Miss. — It’s the thick of SEC play and Ole Miss is looking to find a victory. After the loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, Ole Miss sits at 9-12 and 1-7 in SEC.
Another opportunity arises as Kentucky comes to Oxford in the midst of its own up-and-down season. Coach John Calipari’s team had won its last four SEC games before falling to Kansas in the Big XII/SEC challenge Saturday. The Rebels host Kentucky Tuesday night in the SJB Pavilion.
Ole Miss has struggled mightily in the recent stretch, having won only one of its last ten matchups. In the midst of the skid, Kermit Davis has been trying to find any lineup that works. In those ten games, the Rebels have rolled out seven different starting lineups. That is part of a tally that is up to 13 on the season.
Not all of that shuffling is performance related, as Matthew Murrell has been sidelined due to a recent injury (knee). Daeshun Ruffin has also been inconsistently available due to numerous injuries/illnesses as well.
For tonight’s contest Murrell is considered a game-time decision per Kermit Davis. Daeshun Ruffin has announced that he will be stepping away from basketball for the time being to focus on regaining his mental/physical health.
Per Ole Miss, Matthew Murrell will be a game-time decision for tonight's contest against Kentucky.
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) February 1, 2023
Daeshun Ruffin is stepping away from the team for now. https://t.co/LkM3UU0q3U
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) February 1, 2023
The potential of having to readjust without Murrell and Ruffin has put more of a workload on some younger players as Ole Miss has had to pivot its game plans. Against Oklahoma State, we saw a larger responsibility go to TJ Caldwell, Amaree Abram, and James White.
If Ole Miss is forced to go against Kentucky without Murrell and Ruffin, both, what can Ole Miss do to try and find a way to potentially pull of the upset against the Wildcats? Let’s take a look.
Record: 14-7 (5-3 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (14th Season)
Oscar Tshiebwe – 16.6 PPG, 13.7 RPG
Antonio Reeves – 12.7 PPG, 2.1 RPG
Sahvir Wheeler – 7.8 PPG, 5.5 APG
Cason Wallace – 11.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG
Keys to the Game
1) Know Your Foe and Keep Them Guessing
Kentucky’s season hasn’t gone according to plan. Their recent success in the SEC is what the doctor ordered but unfortunately for Ole Miss their last contest wasn’t an SEC game. Based on how the Wildcats’ schedule looks at the current moment, Kentucky won’t have another premier opportunity for a big resume-boosting game like they did against Kansas. Kentucky will need to run through the rest of its schedule with minimal hiccups to get itself back into the top of the conference and higher in bracketology rankings and off the bubble.
The Wildcats will likely being playing angry when they come to Oxford. Ole Miss can use this and the fact that they have to prepare for a squad by trying different things. Tweaking the game plan a bit to show a few new/rarely used sets or to put an emphasis on dictating the tempo could be big. The potential for Kentucky to have to prepare for some more players who haven’t seen a ton of time or usage of late could also provide some value.
2) Slowing Down Tshiebwe
It’s hard to have a conversation about Kentucky basketball without mentioning Oscar. The reigning NCAA Player of the Year has had another strong season in year two for Coach Cal. Two weeks ago, Tshiebwe put together an incredible 37-point, 24-rebound performance.
Oscar is very good at what he does — he’s a ferocious rebounder who is strong, long, and athletic. He is a major reason why Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. His willingness (motor) to do the dirty work is one of the best in the nation. Tshiebwe has 259 rebounds on the season with 102 of them coming on the offensive end. He sits with 5.4 offensive ones per game.
Since arriving at UK, Oscar has been able to expand his game with increased footwork and an added mid range jump shot. You can expect one-two mid-range jumpers a game from him. Oscar is in the 85th percentile for shots taken at the rim and has an effective 68.4% from the field.
Ole Miss can look to try and do a few things to limit Tshiebwe’s effectiveness. The first is to limit the style of touches he gets. On average, 5.9 of his touches are post-ups and Ole Miss needs to find a way to continuously push him off the blocks or limit the solid entry passes. Second is to have everyone crash the glass and be sure to get bodies near the rim on all shots.
His effectiveness in creating second chances is a key to Tshiebwe’s game (not only for himself but UK) and Ole Miss has prided itself on being a solid rebounding team.
Lastly, bring the physicality to him. One of the things about Tshiebwe is that he can wear down opponents with that blend of size, tenacity, and strength. Ole Miss has multiple guys they can put in to handle him for a few spells at a time. Kermit should keep the rotations heavy and try to bring the physicality to Oscar.
It is a double-edged sword, though, because Kentucky does have other players who can make you pay. Leaving shooters open can hinder plans as a lot of their other players can and will hit down the three, such as Wheeler (37.5%) Frederick (33.3%) Wallace (40.4%) Reeves (38.7%).
It will be up to the depth of the Ole Miss front court to help out here and look for everyone to have to play their part. This includes Jayveous McKinnis, Theo Akwuba, Robert Allen, Jaemyn Brakefield, and Josh Mballa.
3) Hone in On What You Do Best
Without having Murrell and Ruffin on the court, Ole Miss needs to quickly adapt. The Rebels did well to put up points against Oklahoma State and will need to find that success again.
A few things the Rebels can do is work to establish their tempo. Ole Miss is at its best in transition, but the Rebels only do it just over 17% of the time. Look to get Amaree Abram the ball and go downhill while looking early and opposite on the break.
The Rebels also need to continue to use their motion to get good looks away from the ball. Whether it be to set up a C&S or just to get a cut to the basket, Ole Miss will have to work to get open looks in a variety of ways while continuing to try and shape a new identity. They largely used these screens for Murrell but now the focus can go to get James White or Abram looks.
Get Jaemyn Brakefield some more touches. Kentucky has struggled at points against the pick-n-pop, primarily if Tshiebwe is guarding the screener. Jaemyn has been quietly consistent (52% FG / 39% 3PT) all year but could thrive with some more targets. Look for Jaemyn to get some more opportunities to take the next step.
Ole Miss and Kentucky tip off at 8:00 p.m. It will be televised on ESPN.
TJ Oxley is the Director of Basketball Content and Senior Basketball Writer for The Rebel Walk. He has over five years of experience providing in-depth analysis of college basketball through multiple platforms. A former MBA graduate of Ole Miss, TJ started with The Rebel Walk in 2019.