The Rebels are favored in their season-opener against the Demons, set for a 4 p.m. tipoff on SEC Network Plus. But if their loss to Charleston Southern proved anything, it’s to never assume a win in college basketball.
Not to mention Northwestern State is a good basketball team. When the Southland Conference released its official preseason polls, voted on by league coaches and sports information directors, in October, the Demons were pegged as the prime challengers to unseat three-time defending regular-season champion Stephen F. Austin.
SFA was pegged by 12 of 13 head coaches as No. 1. The lone dissenting vote went to NSU, a veteran-laden team led by Jalan West and Zeek Woodley, who rank 1-2 in scoring average among returnees, the highest returning scoring backcourt in the nation.
“It's a dangerous first game,” head coach Andy Kennedy said. “I hate to bring this up, I've tried to use a lot of counseling to get this out of my mind. It reminds me a lot of Charleston Southern. They're a team that's predicted to be right at the top of their league. Stephen F. Austin has had such a great run under Brad Underwood that they're still the prohibitive favorite, but Northwestern State is a solid second if you believe the projections leading into the year. They've got seniors across the board.”
The Demons return four starters from a team that finished 19-13 a year ago. Woodley led the nation with 22.2 points per game, shooting 56 percent from the floor. West wasn’t far behind with 20.0 points per game on 46 percent shooting. He also averaged 7.7 assists and 2.1 steals.
“Coach (Mike) McConathy has done an incredible job of putting guys together and playing to a system,” Kennedy said. “They're small, so we're going to have to be able to guard the bounce. They've got four different guys that can stretch you, and (Woodley), I’m not sure there was a player in college basketball that had a greater percentage of his team's offensive production than the one we're going to face Friday night.
“Difficult first game for us. We've got to make sure we're locked in, especially defensively. They led the nation in scoring last year.”
Ole Miss struggled defensively in its exhibition win over Clayton State a week ago.
Kennedy even went so far as to call the effort “atrocious” in his postgame press conference. The Rebels allowed the Legends to make 52.6 percent of their shots, including 50 percent from 3.
“To me defense is about effort and angles,” he said. “For the most part our effort has been pretty good. Our angles are not great. With these new points of emphasis as it relates to how they're allowing you to defend, there were a lot fouls. I think it's made us very very tentative on the ball. We can use that to our advantage offensively. It goes both ways, but we've still got to guard the ball. We allowed Clayton State to get into a rhythm, and then they started making more difficult shots. That's what happens. You develop a little offensive rhythm, some confidence, and then the other team starts playing better. We allowed that to happen. That's something we cannot allow ourselves to do moving forward.”
The Rebels have an all-time record of 79-26 (.752 winning percentage) in season-openers. They have an overall record of 84-14 (.857 winning percentage) in the first home game of the year, having won 17 of the last 19.
Charleston Southern, of course, being one of losses. Ole Miss was upset on a buzzer-beater, with Buccaneer guard Saah Nimley taking the inbound the length of the court. He missed a driving layup, but Cedrick Bowen followed with a two-handed dunk with 0.1 seconds left.
It all comes back to defense.
“We don’t want to go through the same thing we did last year,” Ole Miss guard Martavious Newby said. “We also realize anybody you lose to in any of those games can keep you from going to the (NCAA) tournament or anything like that. Most of all, it showed us we can’t play with teams, and we have to win every game that we play.”