Ole Miss basketball isn’t a finished product. Far from it, actually. But that’s to be expected one game into the 2016-17 season. The Rebels have six new faces, including three new starters in their starting five. There will be growing pains, no matter their potential, balance and overall roster depth. Season-opening games often aren’t pretty. Andy Kennedy is still figuring out his rotations, and at times, especially early, pace and game flow will be messy. And, boy, was it messy Friday night.
But Ole Miss hung on to beat UT-Martin, 86-83, to open the year. The Rebels had to fight back and play keep away to get the win, overcoming a nine-point first-half deficit against a veteran Skyhawks team that has totaled 41 wins the last two seasons, boasts 12 juniors and seniors on their 13-man roster and won the OVC West Division last season. What was immediately concerning in the Rebels’ exhibition win last week was their sometimes over-reliance on the 3-point shot and the tendency to settle for low-percentage jumpers when faced with zone. Friday followed a somewhat similar script, and what the Rebels quickly discovered was UT-Martin was game for whatever the Rebels had to offer. The Skyhawks made contested shots and didn’t hesitate to step into 3s. Ole Miss fell behind and turned the ball over, oftentimes appearing to press and not take each possession individually. Basically the Rebels were trying to overcome the deficit with each shot they took. Such an approach spells disaster. It almost did Friday night.
But Kennedy went with an energy lineup to spark his moribund offense. His back court remained the same with Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett. But Terence Davis, who I still contend is going to be the breakout star for this team, attacked the rim from the three spot, while Marcanvis Hymon (playing for Sebastian Saiz, who had two fouls) and Justas Furmanavicius attacked the boards and gave Ole Miss extra possessions. In turn, the Rebels trailed by only three at the half. They all but controlled the second half, outscoring UT-Martin, 47-41. Despite the late-game collapse, they led by 11 with over four minutes left. Rallies happen in basketball.
For the first game, there was plenty of good, as well as no shortage of teachable moments for Kennedy. Davis is going to push for a starting spot in short order. He scored 19 points on 9 of 13 from the floor in 25 minutes. Insane. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, in my opinion, for Kennedy to keep the sophomore off the floor. Kennedy agreed postgame. Yes, Davis can be volatile at times and play out of control (some of his 3-point attempts can be baffling, and his turnovers more so), but he continues to flash all-league potential. Saiz, the team anchor, has to stay on the floor. He had five points, and he fouled out with 8:29 left in the game. He played all of 17 minutes. Inexcusable. Ole Miss won’t win many games if Saiz is parked on the bench, because the Rebels will have to play more through the post as the season pushes forward. That means more aggressiveness on offense from Furmanavicius, too. Oh, and the turnovers. Oy. Ole Miss had 24. This after totaling 20 in the exhibition. Turnovers typically doom teams, and if Ole Miss isn't able to reign them in, the Rebels aren't going to be so fortunate moving forward. But turnovers haven't been customary for Kennedy-coached teams. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
And again, there’s time. Ole Miss is 1-0. Mission accomplished.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On the win: “They’re (UT-Martin) going to win a lot of games, man. They’ve got a good team. Their leading scorer coming in is a kid named Jacolby Mobley from Starkville High. He’s been a few different places. He goes 4 for 19. I thought we did a good job contesting (shots). That’s really what won the game for us, I thought. Defensively, we had a spurt, and really it was Marcanvis Hymon protecting the basket, blocking shots, being a presence and us doing a decent job over a six-minute stretch where they were really struggling to score. The whole point of emphasis, freedom of movement, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what that all means. It’s going to be a hodge podge of calls and disruptions of flows. I think we were in the bonus by the 13-minute mark. Sebas, who I’ve made no bones about needs to be the anchor of this year’s team, was a complete no-show simply because of fouls. And that’s his fault and our fault. He’s a no-show. He can’t be a no-show. I told the group, man, we should feel very fortunate we were able to win the game. But we had that stretch, and we’re up nine with the ball. We’re just so careless with the ball. It’s maddening to me. We don’t always do everything right, but the one thing we do do is not turn it over because that is a killer, and this group just hasn’t gotten that yet. When you look across the board and you’ve got guys with five, six, four turnovers, it’s maddening. And it’s something we’re going to have to correct and hopefully tonight’s wake-up call … we had 20 in the exhibition game, and we knew it was a concern but it was an exhibition game, you win by 25 or whatever it was. You play this game, man, where you have some real stress, some real anxiety down the stretch, my hope is the message will be sent. We’ll go through this tape and show them again tomorrow and press forward.”
On the turnovers: “I thought it was just carelessness. We're not in attack mode. When we were in attack mode, Terence Davis looked like a player in the open floor. Justas, when he’s in attack mode, he looks pretty good. And you know what’s crazy? He’s been making his free throws. We got the yips from the free throw line. (Hymon) 0-5, Justas 3 for 9. Those are killers, man. We’ve dropped some games because of that. You go 3 for 14 out of those two guys, it’s a killer.” On Deandre Burnett making the decisive free throws: “No question. Dre’s going to make them. He’s got to get better in other areas. I need him to do more than just put the ball in the basket. I need him to not have four turnovers, and I need him to be more assertive in other areas. But again, this is his first game since March of 2015. We’ve got to be better with the ball. I really believe it’s just lack of strength. And I don’t mean physical strength, but being strong with the ball.” On if the game can be good for teaching: “I’ve done this a long time. I was telling the group, I think, counting my year at Cincinnati, that’s my 379th game as a head coach. That’s a lot of games, man. I’m smart enough now to know when you get a chance to take one, you put it in your pocket and you move on. Obviously a lot we can learn from it. But as we’re going down the stretch and things were unraveling on us, did you see who we had on the floor? Cullen Neal, his first year as an Ole Miss Rebel. Terence Davis, he’s never been in this position before. Deandre Burnett, his first game as an Ole Miss Rebel. Justas, his first game as an Ole Miss Rebel, and we’ve got (Hymon), who is growing into his role. Those guys had to grow up down the stretch. Fortunately for us, we made just enough plays to survive it.” On Terence Davis: “I just told him this, if you look at his stat line, everybody says ‘Man, Terence played great.’ I’d grade him, on the naked eye, about a B-, because I think defensively he’s so much better than how he’s playing. He has lapses and now he’s guarding good players. Their two guards are good guards. We relaxed too much on them, and T.D. did some of that. His role has changed.”
OXFORD, Miss. - (Associated Press) Deandre Burnett scored 23 points and drilled two decisive free throws with 9.5 seconds remaining to give Mississippi an 86-83 win over UT-Martin.
Terence Davis scored 19 points, Rasheed Brooks had 12 and Cullen Neal added 10 as the Rebels (1-0) survived two missed shots in the final five seconds.
Matthew Butler led UT-Martin (0-1) with 25 points, including three 3-point shots in the final three minutes that wiped out a 76-66 Ole Miss lead. Jacolby Mobley scored 17 points, while Kedar Edwards and Javier Martinez added 11 points apiece.
Ole Miss finished 27 of 56, 48 percent, from the field but struggled at the free throw line, managing 25 of 37, 67.6 percent. The Rebels had a 44-40 rebounding edge, including a game-high 13 boards from Justas Furmanavicius.
Ole Miss: The Rebels won despite a limited performance from veteran forward Sebastian Saiz, who fouled out with 8:29 left. The returning leading scorer and rebounder managed only five points and three rebounds.
UT-Martin: Despite the loss in Anthony Stewart's head coaching debut, the Skyhawks forced 24 turnovers and led by as many as eight points late in the first half. UT-Martin was 12 of 33, 36.4 percent, from 3-point range.
Ole Miss hosts Massachusetts of the Atlantic 10 on Monday. UT-Martin hosts Rio Grande Valley Sunday.