Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi

Mississippi defense

An unlucky defense that’s one of the best units in the nation

This is the side of the ball that feels pretty underrated to me. Let’s go back to Simon Gerszberg at Shot Quality. Ole Miss’s defense sits fifth nationally in terms of how difficult the shots they’re forcing for opposing offenses are, just three spots behind Tennessee. They’re good at closing out on opponent three-point attempts, don’t allow a massive amount of threes in the first place, force a lot of ugly non-rim two-pointers, and tries their best to keep opponents away from the rim despite having no real rim protector. But: they’ve unquestionably been unlucky. Teams are hitting 36.3% of their threes overall, despite a good 61/39 Guarded/Unguarded split. There isn’t much wrong with this coverage:

Because that same style of coverage led to a miss from almost the exact same spot:

Get ready for the 1-3-1 zone

It’s unfortunate for the Rebels, because it’s very easy to love a lot of what they do. Kermit Davis is big into throwing out different looks game-by-game defensively, and they’ve gone with a zone look about 20% of the time this season to some genuinely remarkable success:

Among teams with at least 150 possessions of zone defense in Division I, Mississippi ranks first in PPP allowed. It’s not even necessarily that opponents are missing a giant amount of shots; the Rebels only rank fifth of the 69 teams included in this survey in eFG% allowed in the zone. The real key to their defensive success: forcing turnover after turnover after turnover.

On the whole, Ole Miss ranks ninth nationally in defensive TO% at 24.9%, making this Tennessee’s most aggressive turnover-forcing opponent on the entire schedule. Ole Miss ripped off an astounding six straight games of 25% TO% or better defensively to start the season, and only four times all season have they dipped below 20%. (Worth noting that three of those have happened in the last six games, though.) 

On nights when they don’t have the shooting to keep up offensively or the rim protection to slow things down in a man-to-man, the zone can throw their opponent off for some time. Davis mostly didn’t run it in non-conference play, but seemingly out of desperation, he’s gone back to it. I can’t say that it hasn’t genuinely helped them out:

If you keep opponents from shooting the ball in the first place, things get a little easier. It’s an area where Tennessee’s got to be as careful as they possibly can. 54.6% of Mississippi’s zone defense possessions on the entire season have come in the last five games, so you can expect to see Tennessee go up against this shifting 1-3-1 look. One thing I’d note is that, in the zone, Ole Miss gives up about 9% more attempts at the rim than they do in what Synergy defines as man. Tennessee’s got to move the ball around to find opportunities like this one:

For both obvious (they’re small) and non-obvious reasons, actual rim defense is mediocre

When Ole Miss isn’t in a true zone, though, they’ve given up a much worse hit rate at the rim. I’m choosing to at least let the jump shot defense issues pass for now, because, as we know, defensive 3PT% is largely luck-based. Plus, the Rebels are doing a lot of good things on closeouts, and I think better days are coming there. Inside the perimeter, as we mentioned, Ole Miss has done a terrific job of forcing opponents into a combination of ugly 6+ foot runners:

And, as the shot clock winds down, they do very well in walling off the paint entirely, forcing opponents to shoot over the top of them to very limited success (96th-percentile in late-clock defense):

All that said, you can get to the rim and score on Ole Miss for a couple of reasons: there isn’t one truly elite perimeter defender to stop guards from getting to the rim, and they’ve had some serious issues containing more mobile guards in the pick-and-roll. The Rebels are fairly aggressive in switching, which can help them recover more easily but also leads to some advantageous opportunities for the right players:

Along with that, teams have seemed to be specifically targeting Jarkel Joiner on the perimeter. I don’t think that Joiner is a terrible defender by any means, but he’s given up 37% of all isolation points allowed in man-to-man defense by Ole Miss this season. He’s clearly being singled out, and until he shows the ability to slow his man down, it’ll stay that way:

What’s funny is that, if we’re being honest, the majority of “issues” held by the Ole Miss defense are the same issues that pretty much any really good college basketball defense has. It’s impossible to be perfect at something you have only a certain amount of control over, as evidenced by their supposedly mediocre three-point defense. Even the rim protection issues aren’t that bad, as Ole Miss does block a decent amount of shots and ranks 39th in 2PT% allowed. Regression will come their way in a positive manner, but whether it’s enough to make up for the poor offense is another question.

NEXT PAGE: After a month of yelling about it, it sure seems like positive regression exists!

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