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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Ole Miss Rebels

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Ole Miss is going to win around 20 games, go 10-8 in the SEC, and make the NIT. It always happens.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Mississippi vs Missouri Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss Rebels 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Andy Kennedy (234-140, 11 years; 255-153, 12 years overall)

Last year: 22-14 (10-8 SEC); KenPom rating: 74

Returning starters: 4

Returning possession-minutes: 60.2%

Recruiting class ranking: #68 nationally; #14 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

It’s about time we stopped doubting Andy Kennedy.

Since Kennedy took the Ole Miss job in 2006-07, no Ole Miss player has played a minute in the NBA, and the Rebels rarely sign a blue-chip recruit. Every year, we look at Ole Miss’s roster and aren’t impressed, and yet at the end of the season, there’s Ole Miss, in the top half of the SEC standings.

The only downside is that the Rebels have only made the NCAA Tournament twice in 11 years. But what happens when Andy Kennedy has actual good players? We might find out this year.

The Rebels return four starters from last year’s 22-14 team, and included in that are a pair of high-scoring guards in Terence Davis and Deandre Burnett, a couple of good rebounders, and a young point guard with upside. Add to that a four-star freshman guard, a top junior college recruit, and a couple of talented transfers, and you can see how this might be the best team Andy Kennedy’s ever had at Ole Miss.

As usual, Ole Miss is heavy on newcomers: five of the 11 scholarship players on the roster have never played a game for Ole Miss. But they’re also experienced, with four seniors and two juniors. Andy Kennedy’s been squeezing 20-win seasons and NIT berths out of worse rosters than this one.

That said, there’s a big hole inside left by Sebastian Saiz, who only seemed like he was at Ole Miss for the better part of the decade. Saiz averaged 15.1 ppg and 11.4 rpg last year, and posted an incredible 23 double-doubles. Even with Saiz, rebounding wasn’t exactly a strength for Ole Miss, and the Rebels also weren’t great at shooting the ball.

But Kennedy’s earned the benefit of the doubt, and until we see otherwise, you can pencil this team in for at least a .500 record in the SEC and being in the NCAA Tournament conversation well into February. At least.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Devontae Shuler 6'2" Fr. #109 recruit
1 Deandre Burnett 6'2" Sr. 16.5 ppg/3.2 apg
3 Terence Davis 6'4" Jr. 14.9 ppg/5.3 rpg
4 Breein Tyree 6'2" So. 7.3 ppg/1.9 apg
5 Markel Crawford 6'4" Sr. 12.8 ppg/4.4 rpg (Memphis)
10 Antonio Morgano 5'10" Fr. walk-on
20 D.C. Davis 5'11" Jr. walk-on
24 Lane Below 6'1" Sr. walk-on
34 Ilya Tyrtyshnik 6'3" Fr. Unranked

After transferring from Miami, Deandre Burnett announced his presence with a 41-point game against Oral Roberts in his third game with the Rebels — one of ten 20-point games Burnett had as a junior. He finished the season averaging 16.5 points per game, leading the team, and that came in spite of shooting 33.5 percent inside the arc.

That number almost has to come up (he shot 37.6 percent on threes, after all, and it’s highly unusual for a guy to be better at shooting the farther he gets from the basket.) So it’s reasonable to think Burnett could become an even more electric scorer as a senior.

He’ll be joined in the backcourt by 6-foot-4 junior Terence Davis. As a sophomore, Davis needed all of three games to better his freshman year scoring output; Davis scored 36 points all season in 2015-16 and scored 45 in his first three games last year. He finished the season averaging 14.9 points, a massive improvement over the 1.8 points he averaged as a freshman. Some of that was just from playing more minutes and taking more shots, but Davis also shot 56.3 percent inside the arc, balancing out Burnett (who was better outside the arc) and giving Ole Miss a threat to score off the dribble.

Andy Kennedy elected to bring point guard Breein Tyree along slowly as a freshman; Tyree played 20 minutes — total — in the Rebels’ first six games of the season and didn’t play at all in two games. But Tyree worked his way into the starting lineup in December and in SEC play, he averaged 22.1 minutes per game. He was prone to freshman mistakes, averaging 4.4 turnovers per 40 minutes, but showed some potential as a scoring point guard and scored in double figures 12 times.

And with those three returning, Kennedy now has the nice problem of figuring out how to fit a couple of talented newcomers into the mix. Markel Crawford enters the program as a graduate transfer from Memphis, where he averaged 12.8 points and shot 57.5 percent inside the arc last year.

The 6-foot-4 senior is the kind of player that Kennedy has frequently been able to do good things with. Ole Miss also welcomes Devontae Shuler, a four-star freshman who could be a shooter off the bench in this backcourt. 6-foot-3 freshman Ilya Tyrtyshnik, from Ukraine, is an unknown, but I’m learning to trust Kennedy’s evaluations of international players.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
2 Marcanvis Hymon 6'7" Sr. 3.5 ppg/5.0 rpg
11 Eric Horn 6'7" So. walk-on
12 Bruce Stevens 6'8" Jr. #6 JC recruit
13 Dominik Olejniczak 7'0" So. 6.5 ppg/4.1 rpg (Drake)
22 Karlis Silins 6'11" Fr. redshirted 2016-17
50 Justas Furmanivicius 6'7" Sr. 6.2 ppg/5.0 rpg

The Rebels’ backcourt is deep and talented, but the frontcourt is a bit thin. Things got even thinner with the announcement that 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman Karlis Silins would miss the season. Silins didn’t figure to play a major role, but it leaves Ole Miss with just four scholarship players taller than 6-foot-4.

A pair of 6-foot-7 seniors, Justas Furmanavicius and Marcanvis Hymon, will try to replace Sebastian Saiz inside. Both averaged 5.0 rebounds per game and 1.1 blocks per game, but Furmanavicius was a considerably better offensive player. He averaged 6.3 points and shot 53.3 percent inside the arc, and also 61.7 percent at the foul line.

Hymon showed some offensive potential as a sophomore but regressed on that end of the floor as a junior. Hymon saw his scoring average drop from 6.1 to 3.5 points per game in spite of playing more minutes, and his shooting percentage dropped off a bit as well. Some of that likely had to do with the newcomers in the backcourt; Hymon may have simply been deferring to better scorers. Andy Kennedy doesn’t usually ask a whole lot more from his big men than what Hymon provides, and that’s defense and rebounding.

Joining Hymon and Furmanavicius in the frontcourt are a couple of transfers. 6-foot-8, 252-pound junior Bruce Stevens joins the Rebels after being a JUCO All-American at Jones County JC, where he averaged 16.2 points and 11.6 rebounds as a sophomore last year. Maybe the most impressive thing about Stevens: for a guy of this type, he’s unusually good at the free throw line, shooting 81.6 percent at the line last year.

He also shot 37.5 percent beyond the three-point arc, and took a third of his shots from outside, and also averaged nearly two blocks per game. Of course, being good at a JUCO doesn’t always translate to the SEC — but Stevens did enough things well that expecting him to be a contributor this season is probably doable.

Dominik Olecnijzak played 16.4 minutes per game and averaged 6.5 points and 4.1 rebounds as a freshman two seasons ago for a 7-24 Drake team. Those aren’t exactly numbers that scream “potential SEC player,” but the coaching staff likes the 7-footer’s potential, and in any case Ole Miss probably doesn’t have much choice with a thin frontcourt.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/5 North Alabama (exh.)
11/10 UL Lafayette
11/13 Eastern Kentucky
11/17 Georgia State
11/20 vs. Utah
11/22 MGM Grand Main Event
11/28 South Dakota State
12/2 Virginia Tech
12/9 at Middle Tennessee
12/13 Sam Houston State
12/16 Illinois State
12/19 A&M-Corpus Christi
12/22 Bradley
12/31 South Carolina
1/3 at Georgia
1/6 Mississippi State
1/9 at Auburn
1/13 Florida
1/16 at Texas A&M
1/20 at Arkansas
1/23 Alabama
1/27 at Texas
1/30 Auburn
2/3 at Tennessee
2/6 Missouri
2/10 at LSU
2/13 Arkansas
2/17 at Mississippi State
2/20 at Missouri
2/24 Tennessee
2/28 at Kentucky
3/3 Vanderbilt

Ole Miss will only face one true road game before Christmas, but it’s a doozy: a trip to Middle Tennessee, which has won a game in the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years and beat the Rebels by 15 points in Oxford last year. Other than that, there’s also a home game against Virginia Tech and a trip to Texas, as well as a game against Utah in the MGM Grand Main Event. Most of the nonconference schedule seems to be geared toward avoiding the dregs of Division I, though: no team is ranked worse than 251st in the preseason KenPom ratings, and only two are ranked lower than 200.

In past years, Ole Miss having Mississippi State, Auburn, and Missouri as its three permanent rivals was an advantage in conference play, though Mississippi State is returning a lot this year and Missouri might have the top pick in next year’s NBA Draft. Of course, this year Tennessee is one of the double opponents as well. So this still looks like one of the easier conference schedules.


Outlook

At this point, we kind of know what to expect from Ole Miss under Andy Kennedy. The Rebels rarely have a ton of upside, and that seems to be the case again this year: Ole Miss might have one of the league’s best backcourts, but the frontcourt is kind of thin and it’s resting a lot of hopes on a couple of newcomers who might or might not work out.

The good news is that Kennedy has established a very high floor for the program. Ole Miss has had a winning overall record in each of Kennedy’s 11 seasons, they’ve won at least 20 games in nine of them, and they haven’t finished below .500 in the SEC since 2011.

I don’t expect any of those streaks to end in 2017-18. With Deandre Burnett, Terence Davis, and now Markel Crawford, Ole Miss has enough offensive weapons that it’s easy to see how this could be one of the league’s best offensive teams. Add in Breein Tyree, Devontae Shuler, and Bruce Stevens, and the Rebels potentially have even more weapons.

Then again, this was a team that ranked 9th in the SEC in offensive efficiency last season — not terrible, but not very good, either. And that was with Sebastian Saiz commanding the glass and providing balance for the backcourt. Ole Miss managed to cobble together a decent defense mostly by forcing a lot of turnovers, but the Rebels struggled to defend the rim even with Saiz. And it’s not really clear just how Ole Miss plans to fill that hole.

I’ve learned not to bet against Andy Kennedy — but not to bet on his team, either. Ole Miss will finish something like 10-8 in the SEC and might get into the NCAA Tournament with a couple more wins than that, but while the floor for this team is awfully high, the upside seems kind of limited as well.