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Rivalry Game Preview: Ole Miss men’s basketball heads to Starkville to take on the Bulldogs

Rivalry Game Preview: Ole Miss men’s basketball heads to Starkville to take on the Bulldogs

OXFORD, Miss. — The Ole Miss men’s basketball team could use a spark, and Starkville might be just the place to find it.

Entering SEC play presented the Rebels with a daunting task. Kermit Davis’ team opened with three big resume opportunities in a row. In the first of those three matchups, Ole Miss fought hard but fell to Tennessee. Next up was Alabama, and after a good opening tip, things immediately went the Tide’s way for the majority of the contest.

Now, Ole Miss is in the final leg of that trifecta and it comes in the form of a rivalry game with Mississippi State.

The Rebels could use a win to give them a boost. The two sides have met 267 times in their history. Coach Kermit Davis, is a former Mississippi State player under his father Kermit Davis Sr. Mississippi State coach Chris Jans also coached Chipola Junior College where Kermit Davis also spent a short tenure. Since 2018, the two teams have met twice a year and split the series every season.

Saturday offers another opportunity to add to these two programs’ storied past. Ole Miss enters the contest 8-6 overall, while Mississippi State is 11-3. Both teams are looking to right the ship as each has lost its last three games. Both teams ended their non-conference slate with a loss, and both the Rebels and Bulldogs have dropped an SEC game this season to Tennessee and Alabama.

With both teams looking to find a way to separate themselves amidst their conference peers the stage has been set.

We’re both in a situation where we’re starving for a win, so I’d imagine the intensity of the game will be as high as it can get.”

MSU head coach Chris Jans

Embracing Change for Ole Miss

In Friday’s press conference, Kermit Davis talked about tweaking some things — with one of those coming in the form of Ole Miss starting Theo Akwuba on Saturday. The former Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year has gradually seen his playing time increase over the last three games.

Against Alabama, Akwuba had his best performance to date. In 21 minutes, he scored 11 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. His presence inside has been noticeable as a rim protector where he currently leads the team with 1.3 blocks per game.

After the Alabama game, Davis discussed the possibility of going small, and that thought was reiterated Friday when Davis again mentioned it. This is likely to come in the form of moving Myles Burns to the four position.

Myles and I have talked about it, Coach Davis said Friday.

I think that’s something that he can do. We looked at it (Thursday) in practice. We’ll look more at it today in practice. We can play some conventional bigs, but play more of a three guard offense, which we kind of do at times anyways. Myles is probably the best rebounding forward on our team.

Coach Davis on moving Myles Burns to the four

Burns is actually the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 6.5 rebounds per game. That move should free up the potential for Ole Miss to add another guard to the floor which would allow the Rebels to get another scorer or shooter on the court.

Ole Miss is undefeated in games this season where they’ve been able to score over 70 points (7-0). In games where they score 69 or fewer, the Rebels are 1-6. I’ve long said that Ole Miss’ defense is good and will keep them in games — but their offense will have to win them games.

 Who is Mississippi State?

Mississippi State started the season by winning its first eleven games. Their defense is legitimate as they have held teams to below 60 points in eleven of their fourteen contests this season.

State has picked up some impressive wins on the season with victories over Marquette, Utah, and Minnesota en route to their 11-3 record. They currently sit at 43rd in the NET rankings. Chris Jans has made believers in the media largely in part to his hybrid-man defensive scheme.

The Bulldogs have found success with their defense and it’s one of the best in the nation. On the year, they’ve held teams to a 38% FG percentage, which is 24th in the NCAA.

According to Synergy Sports Technologies, their man defense is ranked in the 98th percentile. A large portion of that comes from Chris Jans’s three defensive indicators: points per possession, defensive rebounding percentage, and defensive assist rate. The Bulldogs’ defense gives up 0.764 points per possession and is 11th in the nation and second in the SEC (trailing only Tennessee).

Jans’ unit will look to take defenses out of rhythm by shortening the shot clock. Mississippi State can help achieve this by applying on-ball pressure from the point of attack, fronting the post, and denying everything. Look for Jans to occasionally incorporate a 2-2-1 press with decisive traps in the corners on either side of half-court.

Mississippi State in a vacuum is similar to Ole Miss in that it has a stout defense but also some offensive woes. The Bulldogs’ offense ranks in the 9th percentile against man defense (something Ole Miss should look to exploit).

On an individual level, Mississippi State’s offense is run through their big man, Tolu Smith. The 6-11 center is the leading scorer for Chris Jans’ team, averaging 14.4 PPG. He is the only Bulldog to score in double figures, but former Memphis transfer D.J. Jeffries (9.4) and Dashwan Davis (8.2) aren’t far behind.

“They’re long, play very hard,” Coach Davis reiterated.

DJ Jeffries and Cameron Matthews are two of the beat defending forwards I think anywhere in the country. They have great energy, mix things up really well. Tolu Smith is one of the best low goal scorers in our league and in the country, great hands, quick to the bucket. When he’s healthy, he’s a problem for everybody. They have two great transfer guards that have been great at other schools. They have good depth, good team. I see a lot of strengths for them.”

Kermit Davis on State

State will largely occupy a 4-out-1-in motion offense with Smith occupying the middle. There will be lots of off-ball action with a lot of screening to guys who just distributed the basketball.

Keys for Ole Miss

Win the Interior Matchup

The decision to start Theo Akwuba was warranted by his performance. Now, he has another challenge in dealing with the aforementioned Tolu Smith.

Operating the interior, Smith has a usage rate at 18.5%. He also boasts a 59.5% effective field goal percentage. Akwuba (6-11,” 225 pounds) will consistently be in a fight for position against Smith (6-11,” 245 pounds).

Anytime the ball is reversed, look for Smith to sit in and work to maintain position to get a pass to the interior. One thing he does well is finding high quality looks for himself as 54.5% of his shots have received a SSQ (Synergy Shot-Quality Rating) in the 80th percentile or above. Look for Akwuba to have do three things: stay physical, stay disciplined, and alter shots.

Win in Transition

On Friday, Coach Davis talked about getting out and scoring more in transition. It would make sense as that has been where Ole Miss has been the most effective this season.

The Rebels have their highest points-per-possession rate from plays out in transition (1.17). Adding another guard and shifting Myles to a forward could also help get Ole Miss out and running more often. This could also aid with the potential re-inclusion of Amaree Abram into any lineups as Abram loves to get downhill.

Knowing the principles Mississippi State plays with, it would make sense for Ole Miss to try and get out and go. The best way to stop a team with a good defense is to not let them get set up, right? Look to see if that smaller lineup tries to push the pace for some easy points in a game where they will likely be at a premium.

Get Going Outside

The perimeter hasn’t exactly been a strong suit for Ole Miss this year. After a 2-24 showing against Alabama, most fans would be upset to hear that this should be a point of emphasis. However, Ole Miss does have one rather interesting shooting statistic that is important to mention.

From distance, the Rebels largely go as Matthew Murrell goes. Overall on the season, both Murrell and Ole Miss are expected to get 0.98 points per shot on every three-pointer taken. However, Murrell and Ole Miss only get 0.88 points per shot. That difference doesn’t necessarily signify bad shooting, as the Rebels take a heavy amount of solid percentage threes, per Synergy.

Jaemyn Brakefield and Amaree Abram, for example, contribute 1.18 and 1.15 points per three-point shot. Those are both classified as good. If there was ever a game for Murrell to get back into form, Saturday’s against State would be it. People may be surprised at just how different of a shooting team this group may be when Murrell gets over this slump.

Looking at how State denies everything, there are opportunities to exploit from the perimeter. Both Alabama and Tennessee were able to find success with this. On the year, the Bulldogs have held teams to a 31.1% mark from deep. However, in conference play, the number of threes the Bulldogs have given up and the percentage of makes against them are last in the SEC as they have given up 24 in two games at a 45.3% rate.

Game info

Ole Miss men’s basketball hits the road to take on Mississippi State Saturday, January 7, in Humphrey Coliseum at 1 p.m. on CBS.

(Feature image credit: Kiana Dale, Ole Miss Men’s Basketball)

TJ Oxley

TJ Oxley

TJ Oxley is the Vice President of Operations and the Director of Community Relations for The Rebel Walk. He is also the Director of Basketball Content and Senior Basketball Writer. 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.

About The Author

TJ Oxley

TJ Oxley is the Vice President of Operations and the Director of Community Relations for The Rebel Walk. He is also the Director of Basketball Content and Senior Basketball Writer. 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.

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