How Did We Get Here?
Effectively, Ole Miss couldn’t replace Terence Davis.
The three-year starter left Ole Miss having scored 1,512 points in his college career; he also was the only significant loss the Rebels had off their 2018-19 team, which went a surprising 20-13 and made the NCAA Tournament for just the ninth time in the program’s history. But that alone doesn’t quite explain the Rebels’ drop-off to 15-17, 6-12 in the SEC, in Kermit Davis’s second year.
The Rebels’ shooting percentages in 2019-20 declined pretty much across the board. In 2018-19, they ranked 72nd nationally in two-point percentage, 98th in three-point percentage, and 5th in free throw percentage; in 2019-20, those rankings were 200th, 235th, and 107th. Those drop-offs aren’t explained by Terence Davis’s absence alone; practically without exception, the Rebels’ returnees all saw their shooting percentages decline. And Ole Miss just didn’t get a ton of contributions from newcomers, either: only one of the team’s seven newcomers averaged more than 3.1 points per game, and none averaged in double figures.
When I project teams in the preseason, I’m generally going off three things: how good the team was the previous year, how important the players they’re losing are, and how good the incoming players are projected to be. Usually, just knowing those three things will give you a pretty good idea (though in some cases, there may be weird holes on the roster that a deeper dive will turn up), but sometimes, you’re just wrong. Sometimes, removing a single ingredient causes everything else to fall apart — either because the replacements aren’t any good, or because that ingredient holds everything else together. Either way, Kermit Davis bought himself plenty of time with a surprisingly good first season, such that an underachieving second season probably didn’t hurt his standing much.
Ole Miss returns 55.1 percent of its possession-minutes from last season, which is in the middle of the pack in the conference. On the other hand, they’re once again losing their most impactful player from the previous year.
|Blake Hinson||31.1||10.1||4.6||1.4||0.3||0.6||transfer/Iowa State|
|Bryce Williams||12.7||3.1||0.8||0.8||0.2||0.6||transfer/Oklahoma State|
|Carlos Curry||4.6||0.7||0.7||0.1||0.1||0.2||transfer/NW Mississippi CC|
Obviously, Breein Tyree is the big loss here. Ole Miss’s leading scorer in each of the past two seasons, he departs in sixth place on the Rebels’ all-time scoring list and also ranked fifth in the SEC in usage rate, and tied for first (with Georgia’s Anthony Edwards) in percentage of shots taken. The Rebels also lose Blake Hinson, who started 58 games over the last two seasons but seemed to get worse from freshman to sophomore year; as a sophomore, he had a 92.0 ORating (bad) and shot 39.6 percent from the floor.
The remaining losses aren’t terribly consequential. Bryce Williams played 12.7 minutes per game and started twice, shooting 44 percent from three-point range, but evidently wasn’t a guy that Kermit Davis wanted to keep around considering he got a waiver to play immediately at Oklahoma State under the run-off rule. Carlos Curry and Franco Miller Jr. were end-of-the-bench guys who didn’t appear to figure into the program’s long-term plans.
Devontae Shuler appeared to get caught up in the team-wide funk last season. As a sophomore, he shot 45.8 percent from the floor, 40.2 percent from three-point range, and 82.3 percent from the foul line; as a junior, those numbers were 46.6, 35.5, and 62.6, seeing his ORating drop from 113.1 to 100.8. Which one represents the real Shuler? Shuler also played a greater role as a junior, which could explain some of the drop-off, but he was dramatically less efficient. The question is whether he can regain his sophomore-year efficiency while playing a key role or, if not that, whether Ole Miss can find someone else to allow him to be more of a pass-first point guard as a senior.
K.J. Buffen, on the other hand, did handle the jump from a role player to a starter fairly well. The 6’7” junior was a quietly good find as a freshman and then saw his scoring average jump to 10.1 ppg while starting all 32 games last season, and his shooting percentage actually improved. Senior Khadim Sy provided a big body and occasional low-post scorer, but wasn’t much of a shot-blocking presence and was also a foul machine, getting disqualified nine times on the season. 6’6” Luis Rodriguez started five games before being lost for the season, but did average 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists while he played.
Rodriguez and three freshmen who came off the bench for the Rebels last season will have to hold off newcomers for playing time. Austin Crowley, the most touted of the three, struggled to find his shot as a freshman and ended the season shooting just 28.2 percent from three. He’s probably capable of better than that, but figures to play a bench role again. 6’9” Sammy Hunter was an energy guy who was still a bit raw as a freshman, and Antavion Collum seemed to be coming on midway through the SEC season before mysteriously missing the last four games.
|Romello White||Sr.||6'8"||235||76||transfer/Arizona State|
|Shon Robinson||Fr.||6'11"||220||181||redshirted 2019-20|
The focus here will be on Matthew Murrell, the #39 recruit in the country in the 247 Sports composite — and, somehow, the program’s highest-rated recruit ever in that metric (which, granted, does not go back far enough to capture Justin Reed, who was the #22 recruit in the RSCI in 2000.) But the more immediate impact may come from three transfers.
Romello White was one of the most sought-after players on the graduate transfer market after he averaged 10.2 ppg and 8.8 rpg at Arizona State last season. The impact of White — a shot-blocking and rebounding presence down low that Ole Miss lacked last season — should be obvious. Less obvious are the potential impact of a couple of mid-major transfers. Dimencio Vaughn is a 6’5” guard who averaged 14.8 ppg and shot 39.3 percent from three as a junior, though the danger here is that he was a career 35.2 percent shooter from deep. Oxford native Jarkel Joiner sat out (and paid his own way) last season after transferring from Cal State Bakersfield, where he averaged 15.6 ppg and shot 37 percent from three as a sophomore — and, as these things usually go, Kermit Davis said he was the team’s best player in practice last season.
As for Murrell, well, the good news is that Ole Miss seems to have enough talent to ease him in rather than expecting him to carry the team right away, but he might be capable of doing that. Ole Miss will also have Shon Robinson, a raw, 6’11” player who redshirted last season. Samford transfer Robert Allen was the rare player who had his waiver application denied and will sit out this season.
Figuring out Ole Miss’s first five is a little tough. You would think that returning starters Devontae Shuler, K.J. Buffen, and Khadim Sy are locks to start again, and I think that’s probably correct in the first two cases — though Romello White would appear to have the inside track to start ahead of Sy. The question in the backcourt is whether Davis wants to play Shuler at the point or off the ball; in the latter case, the only other real option at the point would be Jarkel Joiner. Should Shuler play the point, that would probably open up the second guard spot for top freshman Matthew Murrell, with Dimencio Vaughn manning the other wing. Luis Rodriguez is another option at the three.
The bench players are mostly known; the three returnees off the bench last year (Austin Crowley, Sammy Hunter, and Antavion Collum) figure to play there again, and Khadim Sy’s propensity for foul trouble would seem to be less of an issue as a backup to Romello White.
Confidence was high entering last season, and I’ll admit that the misfire in 2019-20 is playing a role in my evaluation of Ole Miss entering 2020-21. I probably underestimated the impact that losing Terence Davis would have on last year’s team, and I might be overestimating the impact of losing Breein Tyree here.
Because entering Kermit Davis’s third year in Oxford, this roster appears to check a lot of boxes. There are three returning starters, and the team’s best returning player appears to be capable of playing at a higher level than what he showed last season. There are multiple potential impact newcomers on the roster, including two graduate transfers who were highly sought after and the program’s most highly-touted recruit in recent memory. And there aren’t any weird, obvious, glaring holes on the roster that could tank the fortunes of an otherwise-talented team.
So… what’s the problem here? Well, what happened last year still weighs heavily. Remember, Ole Miss ranked 101st in KenPom and finished 12th in the SEC… and loses its best offensive player. And it isn’t clear who, exactly, will replace the production lost with the departure of Breein Tyree. And we probably shouldn’t overstate the impact of the newcomers — Romello White is a good addition, but he wasn’t even an All-Pac-12 player. Matthew Murrell is a top-50 recruit, but he’s a freshman. Dimencio Vaughn could be a star, or he could be a role player. It’s easy to see how this team might threaten for an NCAA Tournament bid — and, really, a 10th-place projection in the SEC is about the limit of where I can realistically see that — but it’s also not difficult to see how this team could fail.