It’s all coming together for Ole Miss basketball.
I was bullish on the Rebels coming into the 2016-17 season. Granted, I was bullish on the football team, too, so forgive me if I was measured in my comments and writings on the potential of head coach Andy Kennedy's current crop. But there’s no denying this Ole Miss team has NCAA Tournament potential. This is the most well-rounded roster Kennedy has put together since Chris Warren and Terrico White shared a back court. Only this team has scoring ability one through eight. Sunday was a perfect example. Sebastian Saiz, who leads the SEC in double-doubles, put up his usual eye-popping numbers: a career-high 26 points on 9 of 13 from the field, including 2 for 2 from 3, as well as 12 rebounds. But it was the balance the Rebels showed that creates optimism about the weeks and months ahead. Deandre Burnett, fresh off a ridiculous 41-point performance, totaled 20 points, four rebounds and four assists. He wasn’t nearly as efficient from the field as he was against Oral Roberts, but he didn’t have to be. That’s the thing; Ole Miss has strength in numbers. Rasheed Brooks had 11 points and five rebounds. Cullen Neal had 11, two rebounds and two assists. Better yet, he ran the team and protected the ball, posting a goose egg in the turnover column.
Ole Miss had yet to put a full game together through the first three contests of the still-young season. Make no mistake, the Rebels showed glimpses as they ran out to a 3-0 record, but they’d yet to play two complete halves of high-level basketball. Sunday was such an effort. Saint Joseph’s is a good team. The Hawks featured 12 returners from their 28-8 team of last season; the team that won the Atlantic 10 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Yes, it’s early, but they entered play No. 1 in the RPI (Ole Miss was No. 4) and ranked No. 83 by KenPom, not to mention Phil Martelli has taken Saint Joseph’s to the NCAA Tournament seven times in his tenure.
Ole Miss controlled the game throughout anyway.
The next test is No. 20 Creighton Monday at 7:30 p.m. CT on CBS Sports Network in the championship game of the Paradise Jam. The Jays are a perfect 4-0 on the year after knocking off N.C. State, 112-94, in the semifinals. Seven players scored in double figures. Creighton is averaging 95.8 points per game.
We’ll learn even more about Ole Miss as early as Monday night. But regardless of the outcome, the Rebels have the look of an NCAA Tournament contender here to stay.
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands (Associated Press) — Sebastian Saiz scored a career-high 26 points and added 12 rebounds, and Ole Miss advanced to the Paradise Jam championship game with an 81-68 victory over Saint Joseph's on Sunday.
Deandre Burnett added 20 points, and Cullen Neal and Rasheed Brooks had 11 each for the Rebels (4-0), who pushed a 41-37 halftime lead to as many as 16 points in the second half.
"We were giving up a lot of free opportunities in the last game (a 95-88 overtime win over Oral Roberts on Friday)," Saiz said. "We used the mentality of 'nothing free tonight.' I knew they were going to try to double-team me, but I was ready for it. I knew they weren't going to be able to stop me."
Shavar Newkirk scored 21 points, Charlie Brown had 13 and Lamarr Kimble 10 for the Hawks (3-1), who led twice in the first half, the last at 28-24 on Chris Clover's 3-pointer with 8:56 left.
But Ole Miss responded with a 15-5 run over the next five minutes, with Brown's 3-pointer with 3:54 remaining giving the Rebels a 39-33 lead, their biggest of the half.
Ole Miss's biggest lead came in the final six minutes, with Justa Furmanavicius tipping in a missed Burnett layup for a 73-57 margin with 5:26 left