Ole Miss is 16-10 (6-7 SEC) on the season with a trip to Auburn (10-15, 4-9) at 4 p.m. today up next, and its path to a potential NCAA Tournament berth is long and winding, to put it nicely. Of course, the Rebels could win the SEC tournament in a couple of weeks to secure an automatic bid, or at least give the selection committee something to think about by winning out in the regular season and having a solid showing in Nashville.
The reality is they’re not simply on the outside looking in right now; they’re barely in the discussion. And Brooks, admittedly, shoulders some of the responsibility. In his last nine games, he is 33 of 105 from the field (31.4 percent) and 16 of 60 (26.6 percent) from 3. The Rebels fell flat in a resume-building opportunity at Texas A&M earlier in the week - a game in which Brooks all but disappeared. He was 2 of 9 in field goals, including 0 of 6 in his 3-point attempts.
“It’s not really an excuse, but maybe just the pressure,” Brooks said. “I maybe stepped into a bigger role, and I’m expected to come to play every night. It’s just an adjustment that I’ve got to make.”
He hasn’t been alone in his struggles. Star guard Stefan Moody hasn’t been the same since he suffered a hamstring injury in a loss to South Carolina last month. He finished with a team-leading 17 points against the Aggies, sure, but his 1 for 11 shooting performance in the second half all but sunk his team. He was 1 of 8 from 3.
Ole Miss made just 20 percent of its shots, and 7.7 percent of its 3s, in the decisive second half.
“Moody, I just think he’s getting back to his rhythm,” Brooks said of his back-court partner, who is 25 of 90 from the field (27.7 percent) and 14 of 52 from 3 (26.9 percent) in his last five games.
“I know everybody thinks his hamstring is all good. He’s a freak so he heals faster than people, but he’s still hurting, I feel like. He may not say it, but I see him every day in practice. That’s not an excuse. I think Moody’s going to be fine. I’ve never played with anybody like him. He’s different.”
Put simply, Ole Miss needs to get its two best shooters back on track to make any semblance of a run at the NCAA Tournament - a fact not lost on head coach Andy Kennedy.
“I use the example of Marshall (Henderson),” he said. “It always comes back to Marshall, doesn’t it? Sometimes people would ask, because he would take those crazy shots, people would ask, ‘Man, how does his teammates deal with that? How do you deal with it?’ Because it was coming from a good place. I knew when Marshall took those quick shots it wasn’t like, ‘OK, I’m doing this because I want everybody to look at me and it’s all about me.’ He was doing it because he thought that’s what the team needed.
“I think sometimes with Moody or with Rasheed or with whomever, sometimes we venture out of doing what is in the best interest of us because we feel like we have to make a play. Something’s slipping. That’s where it comes back to trust, trusting the system. The greatest players in the game, what makes them great is they take what the game gives them. They’re forceful. They’re assertive, but they cannot say, ‘OK, this time down, I’m going to do this’ because sometimes the game won’t allow that. You have to be in the moment and take what the game allows you. I think there are times in games where we don’t handle adversity as well as we need to, and Texas A&M was one of those times. We had opportunities in the second half to get that (deficit) down where we could put some game pressure on them and we weren’t able to do so because of our inability to make shots and some of that.”
The season isn’t over. Not by a long shot, and Ole Miss believes it has plenty left to play for. Opportunities remain for the Rebels to build a case. In their back pocket are five KenPom top-100 wins to just one sub-100 loss. Eight of Ole Miss’ losses have come to teams currently ranked in the KenPom top-60.
But it’s less about quantity than quality of wins now, and the remaining schedule offers little that fits the description. Georgia and …? Even still, Brooks and Kennedy are confident Ole Miss has a run left in it yet.
“Where was Alabama two weeks ago?,” Kennedy said. “They’re in the tournament right now. You could say they’ve had more opportunities. Where were the Ole Miss Rebels last year? I’ve been on both sides of this and in the middle. For us, the thing that I’m most excited about is the fact that we are whole. Stefan Moody is dunking it pretty good, running pretty fast. I got (Sebastian Saiz) back. I got to get Moody playing like the all-league player that he was, I got to get Rasheed Brooks making some shots, Tomasz Gielo is playing better than he ever has in an Ole Miss uniform. Donte (Fitzpatrick-Dorsey) and Marcanvis Hymon are both playing better than they’ve played in college. I like where we are. I wish we would’ve beaten Texas A&M, sure. But I know we’ve got five games that will tell the tale for us on what needs to happen in Bridgestone Arena. That’s where we are. We’re just trying to find a way to win a game, find a way to get back to playing the way that we showed capable prior to some of this adversity that hit us. Honestly, I’m proud we are where we are based on everything that we went through. You take the two best players off anybody’s team in the country for the extended period of time that we did and they would be glad to be in the position that we’re in where they still control their destiny. That’s the approach we’re taking.”
“I think we’ve got a run in us,” Brooks said. “It’s all about if we’re going to defend and really rebound. Those are our truest stats. When we out-rebound our opponent we’re 14-1. I just think we’ve got a run in us if we just defend and rebound. Shots, we haven’t really shot it to our potential this year, but I know if we defend and rebound we’ll be all right.”