Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi

OPPONENT Mississippi (8-4, #107 KenPom)
(16-12, first round NIT in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
Jon Sundvold (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -16.5
KenPom: Tennessee -15

Torvik: Tennessee -13.7

EDITOR’S NOTE (WHICH IS ALSO ME): Kermit Davis (Mississippi HC) said to the media yesterday that Ole Miss has a pair of COVID-positive players and that top scorer Jarkel Joiner is questionable to play. If anything happens, I’ll update the preview.

UPDATE: Jarkel Joiner (14.8 PPG) is out, per Kermit Davis. Disregard what’s written about him.

On Ken Pomeroy’s wonderful website, there are little (A) and (B) buttons next to each game that signify Tier A (a top 50 opponent, location-adjusted) and Tier B (top 100, same thing) opponents. He used to call them Tiers of Joy, but after they got usurped by the NCAA for the NET’s Quadrants 1 and 2, they’re now just Tiers A and B. They’re still quite useful because they tell you which games to get most excited about.

Of Tennessee’s 18 remaining games, this is one of only six without the little (A) or (B) next to it. Ken has Tennessee favored by 15 here; they were favored by 16 against ETSU. That’s the level of opponent you’re drawing. Ole Miss beat Memphis, sure, but that looks less rosy by the day; Ole Miss lost by 23 to 106th-ranked Western Kentucky on a neutral in Atlanta and gave up a 25-4 run in a home loss to a Samford team that just lost by 32 to Furman. Your main goal: do nothing embarrassing.

Mississippi’s offense

The graphic above spells it out fairly well, but it’s worth hammering in some of the details. 280th in 3PT%. 223rd in eFG%. Below the national average in OREB%, FT Rate, and FT%. The only thing they really do well is not turn the ball over, but you could argue that missing shot after shot without much threat of a second-chance opportunity is as good as a turnover. Ole Miss hasn’t made more than 31% of its threes in a game since November 18. Adjusted for opponent strength, Bart Torvik credits Ole Miss with going sub-1 PPP in seven consecutive games. It’s made even worse by just how atrocious their shot selection is.

We’ll get to that. First, it is useful knowing that OM does offer one guy (and a potential second) that is generally able to get his points. Jarkel Joiner (14.8 PPG) is a senior combo guard who’s had to play out of position for much of the season as the main ball-handler. By no means is Joiner bad at that; he has one of the lowest TO% (8.2%) for a moderate-usage player in America and he uses those ball-screens to spring himself free for a wide variety of jumpers. Joiner takes almost as many mid-range twos (50) as he does threes (62), so you’ve got to pick and choose which one you’re more comfortable with. Me: the twos. He’s hitting 42% (0.84 points per shot) on those versus 35.5% (1.065 points per shot) on threes; let him take the 18-footer and move on.

Joiner is a pretty good player who is very clearly the best option Ole Miss has offensively. The second-best is a guy who’s played four games: miniscule (5’9″) freshman Daeshun Ruffin, who’s scored 52 points in the four games he’s played. The Ruffin thing is interesting because he’s the only other guy who’s averaged double-digit points in any fashion while also using the OM ball-screens in a much more intriguing way. Ruffin’s just as likely to reject the pick and barrel his way to the rim as he is to actually use it. Ruffin is a much more natural point guard, and Kermit seems to see this; he ran him for 25 minutes against Samford after not letting him top 16 in any other game.

Beyond Joiner and maybe Ruffin, there is no Ole Miss player that can consistently create their own shot. Tye Fagan and Austin Crowley can do it, but the consistency factor is simply not there. Fagan is a bad shooter (28.4% on 88 career threes) who can score at the rim but do little else; Crowley is a bad-and-streaky shooter (29.2% on 96 career threes, but 6-7 in the first two games this season) who can’t score much of anywhere. Ole Miss can score at the rim, but Ruffin is the only guard on the team that reliably creates the space necessary for the offense to operate. Even then, they spend an alarming amount of time taking awful mid-range twos that make no one happy. Even 7-footer Nysier Brooks, who may be the third-best offensive player, isn’t even cracking 9 PPG because he attempts barely 5.8 shots per game. He has a mildly-intriguing jumper, but rarely uses it.

At least when Tennessee took a billion mid-range jumpers last year, the vast majority were within 15 feet of the basket. Ole Miss laughs at this and has taken a truly remarkable 82 shots from 17 feet to the 3-point line this season. 2020-21 Tennessee: 69 for the entire season. Shameful, this.

CHART! When a Mississippi player makes a shot, refer to this to understand if you should be upset. “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “does so, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be very mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

Mississippi’s defense

As usual, here is the far more interesting and watchable side of Kermit Davis basketball. Ole Miss is once again running that weird, unlike-anyone-else-in-the-conference hybrid of a man-to-man defense mashed up with a 1-3-1 zone that morphs into one or the other mid-possession. Considering that this is the least-talented Kermit-era Ole Miss roster on paper, it’s still a little impressive in some aspect that KenPom rates this out as a borderline top-50 unit. (Last year’s ranked 25th.) The scout is still basically the same: hit a good amount of the myriad of open threes you receive and you’ll win; toss up a 7-for-29 outing and you’re going home sad.

The difference between 2021-22 Ole Miss and 2020-21, which was a lot better on defense, is pretty easy to sum up:

  • 2020-21 Ole Miss: 31.8% of all opponent shots at the rim, 58.2% FG% allowed (158th nationally)
  • 2021-22 Ole Miss: 36.6% of all opponent shots at the rim, 62.8% FG% allowed (301st nationally)

Can we spot the difference? Ah, I think I’ve found it:

  • 2020-21 Ole Miss: had Romello White
  • 2021-22 Ole Miss: does not have Romello White

That’s somewhat reductive, but it gets the point across. With White on the court last year, per, Ole Miss played at the level of the 10th-best defense in America (AKA, Arkansas). Without White: 50th-best. You may remember such dire times as Tennessee managing an 8-for-26 hit rate on twos against White and company in one of the dumbest, worst games ever played. The good news, if you’re a Tennessee supporter, is that White is gone. Replacement Nysier Brooks is taller, but not as effective at blocking shots and less good at foul avoidance. The zone itself is effective as keeping the ball out of the paint, but there’s no individual standout defender (Luis Rodriguez comes closest). As such, they’ve had some serious issues containing ball-screen actions, ranking in the 26th-percentile in P&R defense nationally.

With the rim issues have come a reduction in how many mid-range twos they’ve forced. Again, recall Tennessee only getting six shots at the rim last season out of 49 total; this year, only Mississippi Valley State, the literal worst team in college basketball, has managed fewer than 17. The length of Nysier Brooks is occasionally enough to force a runner/floater:

But it’s still not enough to make up for the shift in shot selection. Right now, among the 14 SEC teams, Ole Miss is actually forcing the second-lowest amount of jumpers per 100 half-court possessions. (Only Florida has forced less.) The amount of runners/floaters they’ve forced are tied for the best in the conference, but again, how much of a difference does it make when your opponent’s shot quality is objectively better this year versus last? Also, all of this is against a 12-game offensive slate that KenPom ranks as the 330th-toughest in America, meaning Ole Miss has basically played a SWAC schedule and managed to allow that hit rate. Imagine what’ll happen when they play Alabama or Kentucky.

As stated up top, the Ole Miss goal is going to be to make you shoot over the top of them. Their zone/man hybrid has produced a hilarious reverse split where opponents are hitting 37% of guarded threes, but 28% of wide-open ones. They’re below-average at forcing guarded threes, but they’ve been lucky the 3PT% allowed isn’t worse. The trend has been fairly obvious: in the nine games Ole Miss has held opponents below 1 PPP, only one opponent has shot better than 33.3% from deep (Mississippi Valley State, of all teams); in the three they haven’t, all three have shot 37% or better.

The bet you’re placing here is that allowing this type of shot to constantly be open isn’t sustainable.

Considering opponents have shot about 2.3% worse than expected given their shot quality, I don’t think that’ll hold.

The last thing to watch for: turnovers. Ole Miss forces them in bunches, and one of their best qualities as a team is their ability to have active hands on the perimeter. Don’t let them get hot, so they say.

Avoid turnovers, take the open threes, hammer the rim.

How Tennessee matches up

The good news: Tennessee supposedly should have their full roster available for this one, which certainly beats having two of your three best players unavailable when playing #19. Anyway, one of the main issues with Tennessee’s battle against Ole Miss last year, other than the obvious, was that no guard, wing, or forward appeared confident whatsoever in their ability to get to the rim. Fast forward precisely one year, and Tennessee now has two guards (Chandler/Zeigler) and three frontcourt players (Fulkerson/Nkamhoua/Huntley-Hatfield) who appear pretty darn confident that they can bully-ball you. If Justin Powell (19.3% of all attempts at the rim) or Santiago Vescovi (20%) can push just a little more, we’ll include them, too.

The easiest way to get points down low against Ole Miss has been…well, quite simple: cuts to the basket. I feel like I mention this in every preview, but basket cuts have been the most efficient play type in college basketball for a full decade now. Tennessee’s been very good at making them a big part of their offense. Tennessee’s guards can push the issue with driving to the paint, but it’s on the frontcourt to likely finish through contact. I’d like to see more than, you know, one made basket at the rim this time around.

Likewise, Tennessee is going to get some interesting experience in dealing with this weird zone. As outlined in the defensive section, I’m not sure I would call it terribly successful at forcing tough threes, and it doesn’t even force that many jumpers in the first place. Still, Tennessee takes an above-average amount of jumpers in the first place, and you want these to be three-point jumpers and not ones from 17 feet. The best way to crack this style of zone/man hybrid is to go inside-out and work your way to open threes on the wing and in the corner. This one’s at the top of the key, but you get the point; keep Ole Miss on their toes.

Defensively, you basically have to funnel Jarkel Joiner into the mid-range attempts he loves so much. Even a night where Joiner hits 50% of those is still better than him hitting 40% of his threes. There is no true go-to guy on this Ole Miss roster; Daeshun Ruffin could reasonably be that but is a 5’9″ freshman who has played four games. Force Joiner into these mid-range pull-ups off the dribble; he is skilled at hitting them, but it’s better than the alternative of giving up a shot at the rim or from deep.

The Ruffin thing is fascinating because he’s drawing fouls like crazy and is better at getting to the rim than anyone else on the Ole Miss roster, yet he’s made one three in four games (worth noting he was a 37% three-point shooter in Nike EYBL in 2019, though). He also has yet to face a frontcourt as stout as Tennessee’s at defending the rim. This is the exact type of game where walling off the paint is the first and second goal and you can give up the jump shots happily, because with 12 games of data to use, Ole Miss appears to be a terrible jump-shooting team.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • How early and often does Tennessee attack the rim? Mississippi has allowed a 62.8% hit rate at the rim this season, despite playing what KenPom judges as one of the worst non-conference slates in America. I genuinely believe Tennessee should convert no worse than, like, 65% of theirs in this game.
  • Can Tennessee win the boards somewhat handily? It’s not this predictive for everyone, but Ole Miss in four games where they’ve failed to crack a 23% OREB%: 0.724 PPP, 1.123 (against #302 New Orleans), 0.742, 0.877 (against #201 MTSU). You already know that the nights OM is actually on are pretty rare, so don’t give them more shots than they deserve.
  • Can Ole Miss reach a combined number of made threes + forced turnovers that’s…I don’t know, 27 or higher? I mean I can’t think of a serious path to victory for Ole Miss that doesn’t involve “out-of-nowhere three-point explosion” or “Tennessee turtles offensively the entire game.”

Key matchups

Jarkel Joiner vs. Santiago Vescovi. Well, when he’s the only guy who’s played five or more games that averages 10+ PPG, he has to be a key matchup. Joiner is the best shooter on the team, both off-the-dribble and catch-and-shoot; Vescovi and company can’t let him shake free. I’d like to see Tennessee force five or more Joiner mid-range jumpers.

Daeshun Ruffin vs. Kennedy Chandler. Ruffin has yet to start a game, but he looks like easily the best option Ole Miss has at point. Ruffin is a foul-drawing terror but hasn’t really played anyone with serious frontcourt length and stamina yet; he also has not played anyone nearly as good as Chandler. Good news is that Ruffin grades out as a just-okay defender.

Nysier Brooks vs. John Fulkerson. Brooks commits 4.5 fouls per 40 and is facing one of the SEC’s GOATs in foul-drawing. Do your thing.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee converts 15 or more shots within four feet of the rim;
  2. Tennessee ties a KenPom-era (2001-02 to present) program record by holding its 10th-consecutive opponent below 1 PPP;
  3. Tennessee 73, Mississippi 56.

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