How Did We Get Here?
Well, Andy Kennedy picked a bad time to have a bad season.
In Kennedy’s first 11 seasons as Ole Miss’s head coach, the Rebels had nine 20-win seasons and never had a losing season. They had a 98-88 record in the SEC and never finished ranked outside the top 100.
The main issue that Kennedy had: the Rebels also made the NCAA Tournament just twice during his tenure. They won the SEC Tournament in 2013 (without which they might not have made the tournament) and they snuck in as one of the last four in in 2015. For years, Kennedy got by with a roster composed largely of transfers and the occasional four-star recruit. But just as Ole Miss at long last began to make real investments in its basketball program — opening The Pavilion at Ole Miss in 2016 — Kennedy’s program started to slip. Though the Rebels went 10-8 in the SEC in both 2016 and 2017, those teams ranked 77th and 74th in KenPom, and neither team came within sniffing distance of the NCAA Tournament.
And then, things fell apart in 2018. In spite of a hyped roster — touted in some quarters as the most talented team that Kennedy had fielded — Ole Miss stumbled out of the gate, with a 7-5 record entering SEC play. Things picked up a bit in January as the Rebels got out to a 4-4 start in SEC play, but a seven-game losing streak put the team’s record at 11-16 and Kennedy’s tenure was over. Interim head coach Tony Madlock got a road win over Missouri in his first game as head coach, but followed that up with four straight losses. In all, Ole Miss closed the season losing 11 of its final 12 games to finish the year 12-20, 5-13 and last place in the SEC.
A week after the season ended, Ole Miss announced former Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis as its new head coach. In 16 years at MTSU, Davis had a 332-188 record and, perhaps more impressively, a 185-83 conference record, including 46-8 over the last three years. A Mississippi native (and Mississippi State alum), Davis had long coveted a move back to the power conference ranks — he long ago coached a single season at Texas A&M before being fired amidst an NCAA investigation — and seems like a good fit at Ole Miss.
Still, temperamentally Davis is pretty similar to the man he’s replacing, and like Kennedy, Davis relied a lot on transfers — both of the juco and four-year variety — at MTSU. What’s more, Davis’s first nine years at MTSU were only so-so. This feels a bit like change for the sake of change; in a lot of ways, Davis won’t be much of a departure from Kennedy. What’s more, Davis is already 58 years old. We’ll see how this works out — but of the two SEC teams to hire new head coaches in the offseason, I’m a lot less sold on Ole Miss than on Georgia.
Ole Miss isn’t starting over completely, although there are seven newcomers on the roster. Ole Miss does return 59 percent of its possession-minutes from last season, though.
Senior guard Terence Davis was a bit of a disappointment last season. After a breakout season as a sophomore, Davis’s jump shots suddenly couldn’t find the basket — he shot 48.2 percent from the floor as a sophomore and 40.7 percent as a junior. He still ranked as Ole Miss’s leading scorer last season, though much of that had to do with the rest of the team collapsing. Junior guard Breein Tyree shot 39.4 percent from the floor, and sophomore Devontae Shuler shot 35.2 percent. Throw in graduated seniors Deandre Burnett and Markel Crawford, and this was the SEC’s worst shooting team from beyond the arc — though the Rebels did shoot 74.2 percent at the foul line. That has to get better.
Joining the mix in 2018-19 are a transfer and a couple of freshmen, one pretty talented. Junior guard Brian Halums averaged 17.3 ppg last year at Itawamba CC, and he also shot 44.8 percent from beyond the arc, though he didn’t attempt a high volume of threes. 6’6” freshman Luis Rodriguez picked the Rebels over Illinois, and freshman point guard Franco Miller Jr. had offers from Minnesota and Oregon. At the very least, there’s upside in this group, though the two freshmen were probably both available late in the recruiting process for a reason. The three returnees could be solid as well.
6’8” senior forward Bruce Stevens did all right transitioning from JUCO ball to Division I, averaging 11.8 ppg and 5.4 rpg in SEC play, and he also shot 52.7 percent from the floor. The transition didn’t go quite as well for junior 7-footer Dominic Olecnijzak, who transferred from Drake: Olecnijzak averaged just 3.8 ppg and 2.9 rpg and didn’t provide the defensive presence that you’d have hoped for from a guy his size.
But there also isn’t really an obvious candidate to play inside aside from Olecnijzak; 6’11” freshman Carlos Curry was a player who followed Davis from MTSU to Ole Miss, and will probably need at least a year before he’s ready to play in the SEC. More help is coming on the wing, though, as 6’8” junior Zach Naylor arrives from Weatherford Junior College, where he averaged 20.0 ppg and shot 55.4 percent from the floor and 41.5 percent from three-point range.
A pair of freshmen could be candidates for early playing time, as well. 6’7” Blake Hinson — the younger brother of South Carolina football/basketball player Evan Hinson — reclassified from 2019 to enroll at Ole Miss and was a four-star recruit who had offers from a host of power conference programs. 6’7” K.J. Buffen, like Curry, was a MTSU signee who came with Davis.
Ole Miss schedule
|11/2||Fayetteville St. (exhibition)|
|11/23||vs. Baylor (Destin, FL)|
|11/24||Emerald Coast Classic (Destin, FL)|
|12/8||at Illinois State|
|12/12||vs. SE Louisiana (Jackson, MS)|
|12/21||vs. Middle Tennessee (Nashville)|
|12/29||Florida Gulf Coast|
|1/12||at Mississippi State|
|2/19||at South Carolina|
The Rebels’ nonconference schedule is respectable. An early road trip to Butler and the Emerald Coast Classic in Destin — where they’ll face Baylor and either Cincinnati or George Mason — should give us an early gauge of how much of a rebuild they’re facing, at the very least. While those are basically the only “name” teams on the early schedule, the mid- and low-majors populating the remainder of the November and December schedule are pretty respectable — including a trip to Nashville to face Kermit Davis’s former employer, though the Blue Raiders are probably rebuilding.
Ole Miss’s five double opponents in conference play are Mississippi State, Auburn, Arkansas, Missouri, and Georgia. While Georgia might well be fighting to stay out of the cellar, three of the other four were NCAA Tournament teams in 2018, and Mississippi State looks like a preseason Top 25 team.
Ole Miss’s near-term situation looks a lot less dire than it did before I researched them. While 2017-18 was undoubtedly bad, at least some of that resulted from Terence Davis playing below his established level of performance, and Devontae Shuler is probably better than what he showed as a freshman. Bruce Stevens, now that he’s had a full year to adjust to SEC play, could have a breakout year, and at least a couple of the newcomers should be able to step in and contribute right away.
With that said, there are still a lot of question marks here. Stevens, at 6’8”, is the closest thing that Ole Miss has to an established inside presence. And while the two JUCO transfers (Zach Naylor and Brian Halums) were holdovers from Andy Kennedy, the five freshmen represent the kind of recruiting class that a new coach throws together in the spring when the previous guy didn’t sign anybody: two (Carlos Curry and K.J. Buffen) were players who followed Davis from MTSU; two (Luis Rodriguez and Franco Miller Jr.) were players who were still available in late May; and one (Blake Hinson) reclassified from 2019. In other words, none of them are players who are guaranteed contributors from day one. Ole Miss might get a surprise or two in the freshman class, and Hinson could eventually be a star, but this isn’t a crop of freshmen you want to count on to improve on a 12-20 record.
The first five players on this roster — Davis, Stevens, Tyree, Shuler, and Naylor — at least look like an SEC starting five, and Hinson will at least show flashes of potential (if he’s not a regular contributor.) The lack of a proven inside presence is scary, though, and four of the first five were part of the same group that ranked 13th in the SEC in defensive efficiency last season. This probably won’t be a terrible team, but for 2018-19 there’s just a lot less to get excited about on this roster than just about anywhere else in the SEC. Kermit Davis might get things back on track in a year or two, but his first year looks like it will be a rebuild.