In basketball, the margin of victory doesn’t matter, only the victory. NCAA Tournament resumes, with their reliance on RPI, are shaped by who you lost to. Ole Miss is 2-0, and that’s all that matters. Has it come easy? Not by a long shot. The Rebels nearly blew a double-digit lead against UT-Martin in their season opener. Monday night, they had to fight back from an eight-point second-half deficit to beat UMass, 90-88.
Make no mistake, Ole Miss has plenty of room for improvement. The Rebels ranked no lower than eighth in the SEC in turnovers in any of head coach Andy Kennedy’s previous 10 seasons. In the last four, they’ve finished no lower than sixth, including two first-place finishes. Yet through three games, including an exhibition win over Morehouse, they’ve turned the ball over at an alarming rate. After back-to-back 20-plus turnover games, they coughed up the basketball 17 times against UMass. Even more concerning is eight came from two of their primary ball-handlers in Deandre Burnett and Rasheed Brooks. Turnovers are a recipe for disaster. They beget runs which beget blown leads. Ole Miss was up 32-22 in the first half. Carelessness with the ball resulted in a 26-8 UMass flurry for a 48-40 halftime advantage. The second half followed a similar script, only the Rebels were able to rattle off an 11-0 run over the final three minutes to win. They probably won’t be so lucky next time.
And the lack of a true point guard is concerning, at least early. But, cue the broken record, it’s early. Cullen Neal has the look of the guy for this team. He was 7 of 15 for 21 points. He made 3 of 7 from 3, totaled two assists and two steals and only turned the ball over two times. Still, he had his struggles. UMass pressed a lot, and Neal too often flashed tentativeness and indecision. He’ll get better as he finds his footing in his new surroundings, leaning on his experience of two seasons running point at New Mexico. He has no choice, really. Burnett, Brooks and others are better suited to play off the ball. A few days off before a trip to the Virgin Islands for Paradise Jam could be just what he, and the team overall, needs.
Bottom line, the Rebels have played two games and won them both. Sebastian Saiz was, well, Sebastian Saiz in the win, totaling 22 points and 19 rebounds, and the bench provided valuable minutes. Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey’s final line won’t jump off the page, but his 14 minutes were efficient on both ends of the floor, and Terence Davis, despite fouling out, was impressive again as a change-of-pace, instant-offense playmaker. He has arguably the greatest ceiling of any player on the roster.
Monday could have been a tough setback, a loss that wouldn’t have come anywhere close to crippling the Rebels’ early NCAA Tournament chances, but would have put them squarely behind the eight ball. But it didn’t. They won. As Kennedy has said before, you take a win however you can get it, pocket it and move on.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On the win: “For us, the game is hard to get a flow. It’s really hard to get a flow with the way that the whistle is now. As I just told my team, we have to adjust because it’s across the board. We have 28 fouls, they have 29 fouls. We never really established a rhythm. It’s amazing, you score 90 points, man, I thought we were very, very poor offensively from spacing. The only thing we did well, at the end, I thought we were in attack mode. They tried to pressure. When you pressure you expose the open floor. I thought we made some plays at the basket. We were fortunate. Even though it’s certainly not the way you draw it up, we had the ball on the side, let’s throw it to them, let him kick it off his foot, let’s go to the monitor and get it back. But it allowed us to at least get the last shot, or supposedly the last shot. ‘Dre did exactly what I wanted him to do — downhill to his right hand. Had a tough night, but as I was telling (Ole Miss A.D. Ross Bjork) walking over, the reality is he hasn’t been in these moments but a couple of times in his career. At Miami he wouldn’t have been on the floor. It’s why he’s here. This is the first time he’s in these moments. I just expect him, because I see it every day, to make every play. But he got the ball on the rim, which is exactly what you want to do. Sebas had a tremendous game, obviously. In game one he had foul trouble, never got any rhythm. But he stepped up big for us when we were struggling across the board with 22 and 19. Had a huge tip and put us in control to get out 2-0.
On the turnovers, guys struggling to handle the ball: “Just the look. From the naked eye, I’m looking at it like a fire sale where I am. I’m thinking what in the world are we doing? Because I know what we practice, and I just don't see it transfer over. But it looks like we’re just not comfortable. Forget about where you’re supposed to be, we’re not comfortable dribbling the ball. We’re not being aggressive. When we got aggressive at the end it allowed us to win the game.” On the run in the final three minutes to win: “Sense of urgency more than anything else. We win the battle of the glass, we turn them over 18 times. We have 17, which is ridiculous. We shoot 56 percent in the second half, we make our free throws at about a 72 clip. Eliminate some of the turnovers, some of the foolishness, some of the missed layups, ‘cause once you broke their pressure we had point-blank looks at the rim. We need to do a better job of finishing that and we wouldn’t put ourselves in such a precarious situation.” On the increase in foul calls: “And those are three big-time guys, man. Those are three first-line refs. It’s not them. They’re following the mandate. We have to adjust, both teams. Basketball has to adjust. If this is how you’re going to call it, we have to adjust. We had foul trouble, which really throws you off. You have no rotations whatsoever. I think I had every guard on the floor at one time had four fouls. It makes you very tentative. UMass has a great group of guards. They were attacking us off the bounce, we’re giving, giving, giving. They shot the ball exceptionally well tonight. I thought Jarreau came in as a reputation as a non-shooter. That kid’s going to be tremendous.” On the mandate: “The mandate is freedom of movement. You cannot put your hands on anybody with the ball, even in the post. Used to you could arm bar a little bit. It’s freedom of movement. You can’t use your hands. You’ve got to use your body. Bodies have to be set, and you’ve got to be more proactive instead of reactive. We’re way too reactive. We get beat a little bit, we’re giving up splits. We’ve got a lot of issues across the board. But there’s never been a better time for us to go on our MTE. We’re going to get on that plane Wednesday, thankfully we’re on the plane at 2-0, and it’s going to give us a chance to reset who we are. We’ve got a little bit of reset from a mentality standpoint and from some of our mechanics. I know what I’ve seen (in practice) I wish you guys could see. I see a team that is much grittier, much grimier, much tougher than what I’m seeing in these games. That’s got to improve or we're not going to be who we are, and that’s who we are and how we’ve got to play.”
Sebastian Saiz scored on a tip-in with 3.3 seconds remaining to lift Mississippi over UMass 90-88 on Monday night.
Ole Miss (2-0) trailed for almost the entire second half before a late rally delivered the victory. On the Rebels’ final offensive play, DeAndre Burnett drove to the basket, but missed on a contested layup. The 6-foot-9 Saiz was there for the tip-in and UMass missed on its final 3-point attempt.
Saiz finished with 22 points and a career-high 19 rebounds, making 4 of 9 shots from the field and 14 of 18 free throws. Cullen Neal added 21 points. UMass (1-1) fell into an early 10-point hole, but rallied to take a 48-40 lead by halftime. Freshman DeJon Jarreau led the Minutemen with 25 points while Zach Lewis added 20.
Both teams fought through foul trouble late in the game during a whistle-filled evening. UMass was called for 29 fouls while Ole Miss had 28.
UMass: It was a frustrating night for the Minutemen, who had control of the game throughout most of the second half only to see it slip away in the final minutes. UMass has to be encouraged by the play of Jarreau, who scored at will at times against the Rebels.
Ole Miss: It was a monster game for Saiz, who the Rebels are counting on to have a big season. Neal’s consistent scoring so far this year has been an added bonus.
UMass: The Minutemen return home to face Temple on Thursday.
Ole Miss: The Rebels face Oral Roberts on Friday in Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.