Show Me My Opponent: Ole Miss

Working hard to come up with an intro here….ah, I can’t. This program’s too boring, too forgettable. Ole Miss basketball, from 2006-07 to 2016-17, never finished with fewer than six SEC losses or more than nine. It was a remarkably there program. They haven’t had an NCAA Tournament seed higher than 8 since 2001; they haven’t progressed past the Sweet Sixteen ever. They made the NCAA Tournament five times in six years from 1997 to 2002. There have been all of three NCAAT runs since.

Kermit Davis is a good guy and a good coach, I think.

WHAT THEY BRING

A pretty disappointing offense

Interestingly enough, Year 2 of the Kermit Davis Experience at Ole Miss started off pretty swimmingly: four straight wins over mediocre opponents, a one-point loss, and then a neutral-site win over the best Penn State team in nearly 25 years. All in all, no one would’ve been faulted for thinking these Rebels could make their second straight NCAA Tournament – small potatoes to some, certainly, but their first back-to-back NCAAT runs since 2001-2002. The day after Penn State, they took the Barclays Center court against Oklahoma State, ready to keep their hot start rolling.

Instead, the train crashed through the floor like a bad animation and seemingly cannot reach the bottom. Ole Miss lost that game 78-37 and has gone 4-6 since; their best win since Penn State is over KP #219 Cal State Bakersfield. Against anything other than crap opponents, they’ve been an offensive disaster. Eight games against Top 100 or SEC competition have resulted in two 1 PPP+ outings, with just one 2PT% outing above 50%. (A 71-55 loss to Florida, if you’re curious.) Davis’ offense, which relies heavily on ball screens and basket cuts, has malfunctioned more than most would’ve anticipated. Devoid of great shooters of teams past (Terence Davis) and of a decent shooting big man (Bruce Stevens), Ole Miss has defaulted to a depressing diet of lots of non-rim twos and missed threes.

Breein Tyree, still the main focus

Breein Tyree is the guy you’ll remember from said previous teams; he’s still the best player and best scorer Ole Miss has. Tyree’s the only player that really forces his way to the rim without others’ help, and he’s converted 63.5% of his attempts.

Tyree loves getting into the paint off of a ball screen, whether that’s coming off of the screen or denying it entirely. Same deal with his mid-range pullups, which he’s taken an unfortunate amount of.

Tyree leads Ole Miss in made threes with 36, and Tennessee has to make him their defensive focus. He’s not an elite shooter (35.6% for his career, never higher than 37.5% in any season), but he’s a good one and the best Ole Miss has got.

Devontae Shuler’s struggles

Behind him is Devontae Shuler. Shuler’s had a lot of issues this year, whether it’s struggling with turnovers or missing a lot of ill-advised jumpers.

Synergy has him in the 30th-percentile of offensive efficiency nationally, which is brutal for a guy that was a 40% three-point shooter a year ago. Shuler started slumping in late November against Memphis and Penn State and never really recovered; his last five games have resulted in 45 points on 60 shots. Shuler’s a big fan of pulling up off of ball screens like Tyree, but he’s not as efficient. They’ll try to get him plenty of open looks from three to get him going, and it may work; he really should be hitting more than 29.5% of his catch-and-shoot threes.

Others to know

Third guy you’ll need to know: Blake Hinson. Hinson missed the first four games of the year, so if you’re a pessimist, you’d say Ole Miss is 5-8 with him playing. Same deal as last year: he’s an undersized 4 playing at the 3 that hits threes at around a 35% rate and only goes to the rim a couple of times per game. Why he doesn’t go more often, I’ll never know or understand.

Others to know: the two starters surrounding these three, KJ Buffen and Khadim Sy. Buffen is the starting 4 and cannot shot well from three at all; he’s 8-for-30 from deep through 1.5 seasons. He gets tons of actions off of cuts.

Sy, like Buffen, cannot shoot; this puts Ole Miss in the unfortunate bind of basically having two guys in their starting lineup you won’t defend past 15 feet. Sy is Ole Miss’s go-to guy in both ball screen sets and post-ups; he’ll get a lot of action as the roll man and in the post.

Interior defense has struggled a lot more than I’d expect

As noted earlier, this has traditionally been Kermit’s stronger side of the ball…and yet it just isn’t so far at Ole Miss. This year’s edition ranks 123rd in KenPom; while last year’s should’ve been better than 80th if not for bad 3PT% luck, this one is openly not good. The Rebels’ rim defense is utterly horrid, allowing opponents to convert 64.3% of attempts. They’re doing a fine job on perimeter defense if you refuse to look at the underlying stats, which would tell you their opponents are shooting a truly amazing 23.4% on wide-open threes. Indeed, I could do that.

The interior defense issues can pretty well be hammered down to a couple of key points: their starting center, Khadim Sy, is a foul machine, and the guys behind him are either inexperienced, bad, or both.

KJ Buffen’s one of those backups, and he’s a solid-enough defender, but you can boil down his shortcomings to only being 6’7”. Ole Miss’s best shot blocker transferred to Florida State, so this is what you’ve got: a defense that doesn’t block many shots, allows a lot of drives to the basket, and is utterly horrid at defending post-ups.

Over their last few games, Ole Miss got smoked at the rim by opponents you’d expect (Arkansas, 67% hit rate) and opponents you wouldn’t (Florida, 73.9%). It’s not good, man.

The mid-range defense is a little better, but it’s still nothing special. The Rebels don’t block many shots away from the basket, just like they don’t at the basket. It’s not a surprise, then, that you’re looking at the 214th-ranked two-point defense in America. Amazingly – and this is true – this number represents the worst non-Vanderbilt defense left on the schedule. 214th really isn’t that terrible! I mean, it’s bad, but it’s not UNC Asheville (332nd). And yet: this is the least-acceptable defense left that’s won an SEC game in the last year.

Perimeter defense due for regression, IMO

I touched on the perimeter defense earlier, but we’ll dive in a little deeper. Kermit switches between man-to-man defense and a 1-3-1 zone that’s probably better than the normal defense. Either way, it’s allowing several open threes, which oddly do not go in. Again, perspective: Ole Miss’s opponents this season have shot 31.8% from three.

That’s well below the already-low national average of 33.2%. Obviously, Tennessee’s not a lovely shooting team, but someone’s going to take advantage of this in the very near future. (Alabama minus whatever on February 22 looks good to me.)

Anything else?

Uhhh…they’re very good at defensive rebounding, like most of Kermit’s last several teams. Fairly good at stealing the ball from you; Shuler and Buffen in particular seem to be above-average on-ball defenders.

NEXT PAGE: Don’t ask for the supercut

Show Me My Opponent: Vanderbilt I

If you squint just enough and lose all built-in filters to your brain, you can pinpoint the day that both Tennessee and Vanderbilt’s seasons to a massive swing to the negative:

The difference here is that Vandy was pretty much always going to be this bad. Since their somewhat miraculous NCAA Tournament run in 2016-17 – which wasn’t all that impressive, considering they finished with a 19-16 record – the ‘Dores are 29-51 since, 6-33 in conference play. They’re in the midst of a 21-game conference losing streak, which is the longest streak in SEC basketball history by six full games. It’s a terrible time to be a Vanderbilt basketball fan, and this was before All-SEC lock Aaron Nesmith went down with a foot injury.

Per KenPom, this Vandy program is an underdog in all 15 of their remaining games. Given that teams rarely win every game they’re favored in or lose every game they’re not, the likelihood of a second-straight winless SEC season is just 1.2%. Pomeroy says they’ll win about 3.67 of these games; undoubtedly, 3-15 or 4-14 in the SEC would represent improvement of some sort.

My point is this: rarely, if ever, do we see programs stay this bad for multiple seasons in the SEC. It’s easier to dig out of the bottom in basketball than football, and I like thinking of LSU, who ranked 172nd in KenPom in 2016-17 but 66th the next season. It’s not all that hard to at least get out of the basement. And yet: this is like watching Kim Anderson Missouri teams all over again. In that sense, Vanderbilt basketball is probably worth your time.

NEXT PAGEPlease

Show Me My Opponent: Georgia

Athens, The City

As someone who’s never been to Athens, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about the city. It appears to be a mid-sized Southern city purely made for someone like me, a music obsessive that happens to love basketball (and, secondarily, football) a lot. The city is home to an excellent university, a wildly diverse art scene, and, most importantly, food. But it is also home to three musical acts incredibly important to my youth: The B-52s, R.E.M., and Pylon.

All three emerged out of the same University of Georgia-adjacent scene in the late-70s/early-80s. Two of these bands you know very well; two of these bands have pitch-perfect debut albums that everyone should own. Somehow, the third of these – a significantly less perfect debut – is of utmost importance to me. Pylon’s Gyratea 1980 release, is a pretty excellent new wave-ish album from the Athens group. The idea itself is surprisingly simple – what if we made a punk album you could dance to? – and a basically perfect record for my scatterbrain.

However, there’s a follow-up edition of this album released in 2007, long after the group had ceased its existence: Gyrate Plus. 16 songs long instead of 11, it adds a few songs on both ends. Most bonus track releases are money-grabs that don’t catch my eye. AND YET: this does, because of the first two songs. “Cool” was featured in a Lexus commercial a few years back and sounds, well, like the coolest thing ever. “Dub” is basically the only reason I still play guitar, because it is the absolute perfect song for someone with a 12-year-old’s brain. Amazingly, Pylon released these two songs as a little-known single a year prior to the album coming out.

I like thinking about this band, because I like thinking about any unfairly-ignored group and I like thinking about the fact it took them 27 years to realize the two best songs they ever recorded probably should’ve led off their debut album. I guess they arrived at thinking they should lead the re-release of the album with them somehow, but it’s nice to think of it as a happy accident. Accidental greatness – the name of what I’d probably like to achieve one day.

Athens, The Sports Town

Everyone rightfully thinks about Georgia football when it comes to the University of Georgia. BUT: did you know their basketball team has a seriously odd history? A quick deep dive starts below.

  • 11 times in a 22-season span, Georgia basketball spent at least some time in the AP top 20…yet never peaked higher than 10th for a week in 1983-84, a season they did not make the NCAA Tournament.
  • Just three times in the 64/68-team era has Georgia lost single-digit games…but until last season, they’d never topped 20 losses, either.
  • Georgia has finished within one game of .500 in conference play either way 14 different times in the last 29 seasons.
  • In the modern era of basketball – we’re saying about 1970-present here – Mark Fox is easily #2 in Georgia’s history in wins at 163. Mark Fox never won an NCAA Tournament game at Georgia, spent one week ranked at #24, and never had a W-L% better than 63.6%. And yet!

Ken Pomeroy’s program ratings place Georgia as the 61st-best program in college basketball, which seems pretty much perfect. Georgia’s only finished in the KP Top 50 six times in its 23-year database, hasn’t made the Sweet Sixteen, has never finished higher than 16th (2002-03)…and yet, they are never outright terrible, last season excepted. In the post-Jim Harrick era, Georgia’s only made three NCAA Tournaments in 16 seasons, with zero wins. However, they are ridiculously consistent: they’ve finished in the KP Top 50 once and have finished outside of it six times, which means they’ve ranked 51-100 nine times.

In some fashion, it’s remarkable. Georgia may be the most fine program out there. You never spend a second worrying about them, but they’re always there…waiting on the periphery…thinking about getting better…never actually getting better. If .500 were in the dictionary, you would see this program. I think I’ve arrived at considering this commendable in some way; fans of the program itself will think of it as a relentless frustration.

NEXT PAGE: The second Pylon album is also good, complete with all-time cover art

Show Me My Opponent: Missouri

Do you like excitement? Do you like basketball? Do you like exciting basketball? If you like any or all of those three things, I’m not sure Missouri basketball should be your program of choice. Not just currently, but, like, historically. It’s hard to name a less-interesting two-time Elite Eight participant over the last 20 years. The best Missouri team in my lifetime lost to Norfolk State in the Round of 64; just one of the last six Missouri teams has even ranked in the top 100 of KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings. Not great, Bob.

However, in maintaining my focus away from the current team, it would indeed be fun to talk about said best Missouri team of my lifetime. The 2011-12 Tigers ranked #1 by nearly three full points in offensive efficiency; they played no defense at all, ranking outside of KenPom’s top 100 in defensive efficiency. They were coached by Frank Haith, who by this point is probably more famous for a wide variety of NCAA violations than anything he’s done outside of this one spectacular season. They had a seven-man rotation and no future NBA players of note, though they did provide Tennessee with current assistant Kim English. And let me tell ya: they were the most fun team to watch in America that season alongside Creighton.

It’s one thing to be an elite two-point team; it’s another entirely to be elite from three, too. Missouri did both, and they did it with great fervor. They started 14-0, beat Kansas in an instant classic, lost to Kansas in an instant classic, and then won the Big 12 Conference Tournament with ease over future Elite Eight participant Baylor. I remember Missouri being a popular Final Four pick and being baffled, entirely because they easily had the worst defense of any top-four seed in the Tournament. But who cared? They were insane and stupid and a total blast.

And then came Norfolk State.

Prior to this exact moment, the 2012 NCAA Tournament had largely sucked. The two upsets on Day One were a very boring 12-over-5 (VCU over Wichita State) and UNLV blowing it to Colorado in an 11-over-6. The best game was probably an upset that didn’t happen, UNC Asheville/Syracuse, which came ultra-close to being the first-ever 16-over-1. Day Two sucked to start, with several unmemorable games. And then, out of absolutely nowhere, came what is now the second-biggest upset in the history of the Tournament. I remember watching this at an Applebee’s, silently rooting for both teams at once, simply because I couldn’t quit the Missouri offense.

As dumb as the Frank Haith era was, I wonder if Mizzou fans would happily run it back, warts and all. Three years of Cuonzo have brought the Tigers a 15-22 SEC record and zero NCAA Tournament wins; at least Haith brought a hilariously good offense. Cuonzo’s teams can’t stop turning it over, ever, and can’t shoot a basketball anymore. This program hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since I was a junior in high school, and it feels like it would take a 51-48 barf tornado to win one now.

NEXT PAGE: “Tougher breed”