Ole Miss has given up at least 83 points in each of its first three games. The casual observer might come to the conclusion the Rebels have issues defensively, especially in surrendering 88 points to Oral Roberts in a seven-point Ole Miss win in the Paradise Jam tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands Friday afternoon.
But I’m not so sure. I see a team struggling to find a defensive identity due to the uncertainty of college basketball’s emphasis on freedom of movement. Head coach Andy Kennedy made mention of a lack of aggression in his postgame interview with the Ole Miss IMG Radio Network. On Monday, after the Rebels battled back to beat UMass, he spoke of an overall defensive tentativeness. That was obvious against Oral Roberts, perfectly personified in team leader and go-to Rebel big Sebastian Saiz. Saiz finished with 11 points, five rebounds and four fouls. But even before he got into foul trouble, he was playing as if he was on the verge of fouling out. Oral Roberts forward Emmanuel Nzekwesi worked him for 20 points and 14 rebounds, oftentimes taking the fight to Saiz, who allowed Oral Roberts to attack the base line with regularity. The Rebels’ perimeter defense wasn’t much better, chiefly due to the inability of Deandre Burnett, Cullen Neal and others to use their hands. The rules don’t allow for it anymore. However, other teams have adjusted and found their footing, and there’s plenty of time yet. But Saint Joseph's, who the Rebels draw Sunday, is a good team and Ole Miss will need to get better in a hurry. Kennedy has preached aggression, and he’ll continue to over the next 48 hours. But, as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The impetus is on the players. In basketball, to the aggressor goes the spoils. Aggression begets offensive rhythm. Shooting is contagious. Ole Miss has played on its heels far too often through the first three games of the season. Still, the Rebels are 3-0.
Sure, there are problems on offense, too, but Ole Miss has scoring options one through eight in its rotation. Friday was Burnett’s game. He took over with a ridiculous, career-high 41 points on 12 of 19 shooting. He was 9 of 12 from 3 and 8 of 8 from the free throw line. He couldn’t have been more out of sorts against UMass, so hats off to him for bouncing back. He’ll continue to be a roller coaster, at least until the Rebels get deeper into their non-league schedule. He’s been out of game action since March of 2015. However, he showed his ceiling in the win. He’s been hailed as the next in line to Chris Warren, Marshall Henderson and Stefan Moody. He sure looked the part, and Ole Miss might need more Herculean efforts from him before the season’s over, especially if it can’t find consistent production at point guard. I like Cullen Neal a lot. His 3-point shot is smooth and he can facilitate. But turnovers were an issue at New Mexico, where, like at Ole Miss, he was running the point out of necessity rather than skill-set fit. He’s more naturally a two-guard, but Ole Miss has a roster of seemingly all two-guards. He’s the best fit to run the point. That is, until Breein Tyree is healed up and ready. He’ll get a long, hard look there if Neal continues to be up and down. But that’s a conversation for another day.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On the win: “I want to give Oral Roberts a lot of credit. These type of tournaments you’re always worried. I just told our team I was a little concerned coming into the game. Everything is just so different. These kids have obviously never been in a tropical area like this. For many of our players, it’s new to them. We get up today and try to go through the same routine, but it’s next to impossible under these circumstances. I didn’t like our approach early. I thought we were very passive. To Oral Roberts’ credit, I thought they were the aggressor early. It was miraculous we were up three at the half, and that was all because of Deandre Burnett, who carried us all night. Forty-one points, hit the (3-pointer) that tied it to get us to overtime. In overtime, really for the first time all game, we put enough possessions together. Both teams got extremely fatigued. Our pressure bothered them a little bit. I’m certainly proud that we won the game and we are showing some intestinal fortitude of making plays down the stretch. We’ve got a lot, for us, that has to be corrected. First and foremost, it’s my job to make sure that their approach coming into the game is tighter. I just thought we caught the island vibe and were very, very relaxed to start the game. Oral Roberts could sense that. They were on the attack against us, we were playing on our heels all night.”
On Oral Roberts: “Their front court goes for 44. (Emmanuel) Nzekwesi goes for 20 points and 14 rebounds. He hit the first 3 of the game and plays 44 of the 45 minutes. I thought they did a tremendous job. They certainly out-produced us along the front line. It took a special night from ‘Dre for us to get over the hump. Thankfully, he came through.” On Saint Joseph’s, the Rebels’ upcoming opponent: “It’ll be another challenging game. At least we do have the off day. We’re supposed to be off tomorrow. That will allow us to prepare. We’ll continue to try to emphasize the things we have to do to be successful. One is be the aggressor. That’s something we’re certainly going to harp on the next 48 hours.” On Burnett’s effort: “We had Marshall Henderson who kind of came out of nowhere to be the SEC’s leading scorer. We lost Marshall, and we had a special team that year, won an SEC championship and advanced in the NCAA Tournament. Everybody’s wondering, ‘Hey, man, how are you going to replace him?’ We may have one here in Stefan Moody. Moody leads the league in scoring, and Deandre Burnett is the next in line. We’ve seen this in practice. The thing that’s incredible to me is he’s coming off such a tough game in his last outing. He was 3 for 15, so he wasn’t coming off a great high from a confidence standpoint. But he made shots early and got into a great rhythm for us.”
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) -Deandre Burnett scored a career-high 41 points as Ole Miss pulled away in overtime to hold off Oral Roberts 95-88 Friday on the opening day of the Paradise Jam tournament.
Terence Davis added 13 points, and Sebastian Saiz and Rasheed Brooks had 11 each for the Rebels (3-0), who had to rally from a five-point deficit in regulation.
Ole Miss trailed 79-74 with 1:20 remaining when Burnett scored five unanswered points, capped by a 3-pointer with 33.4 seconds remaining to tie the score.
Brooks then opened overtime by hitting a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws to put the Rebels ahead to stay.
Emanuel Nzekwesi had 20 points and 14 rebounds for Oral Roberts (1-2), with Albert Owens adding 22, Kris Martin 15 and Jalen Bradley 12.
Oral Roberts: Is now 0-5 all-time against Ole Miss Had its highest-scoring game this season, and its third of 80 or more points.
Ole Miss: Coach Andy Kennedy picked up his 216th career win, moving him past Auburn's Joel Eaves for 20th on the SEC career victories list.