Head coach Andy Kennedy wanted to find out more about his team. The Rebels played three games in four days, winning two. Their lone loss was to then-No. 12 Creighton to close out the tournament. Following a win over Montana on Thanksgiving, Ole Miss is at 5-1 with important non-conference dates with Middle Tennessee and Memphis upcoming.
All in all, the trip was a success. Kennedy believes the Rebels played, arguably, their best 40 minutes of the year in an impressive 81-68 win over Saint Joseph’s. And they were in control for 26 minutes against Creighton only to lose late. So how does Kennedy feel now?
“I’ve got a pretty good understanding of who we are,” he said. “I want us to be able to take that next step as it relates to communicating within and starting to put into play some of the things we do every day. Carry-over is very important for us.”
Ole Miss is a close-knit team featuring a wealth of scoring options. Deandre Burnett has quickly established himself as one of the most dynamic scorers in the SEC, while Sebastian Saiz is a walking double-double and a bench led by Terence Davis offers myriad rotational options for Kennedy.
However, there are areas in need of work, too. Ole Miss has struggled somewhat defensively, specifically in guarding the perimeter. Creighton, for example, was good on 16 of 26 3-point attempts. Guard Cullen Neal said the principal issue could be a lack of communication, which can be attributed to so many new faces. Ole Miss has six new players on its roster.
“We’ve just got to keep working,” Neal said. “Defense will get better as the season progresses. I think once we start communicating better and trusting each other a little more on the court the defense will start progressing better. Honestly, there’s a lot of defensive lapses. I think, if you watch the film, it’s not just one person or one mess-up. There’s defensive lapses that come from every spot at some point in the game. It’s not continually by the same person, if that makes sense. Honestly, I think once we have more and more time together it will start getting better and better.”
Ole Miss hosts Middle Tennessee Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT. The game will be carried by SEC Network Plus. The Blue Raiders rank No. 110 in college basketball, according to KenPom. Memphis is No. 85. Per ESPN’s new power rankings, Ole Miss will play three teams currently in the Top 10 and five in the Top 17.
A win over Middle Tennessee would give the Rebels a 6-1 start to the season for the first time since 2013-14. Ole Miss is certainly riding high. Burnett, who leads the SEC and ranks 14th nationally in scoring average at 23.2 points per game, said though the season is still in its early stages, NCAA resume-building opportunities await.
“Being the SEC is a tough conference, games like this help us,” he said. “A.K. likes to say it’s good to have those wins in your pocket early, so certain losses in conference play won’t hurt as bad. Middle Tennessee and Memphis are great teams, Memphis being undefeated and Middle Tennessee usually wins their conference. tese are two key teams on our schedule and two wins you need to have.”
“I definitely think we have a good confidence level coming out of the Virgin Islands,” Neal said. “Obviously it wasn’t the results that we wanted, but I think we can feel about losing a close game to a Top 10 team in the country. These next two games are definitely big resume-builders. I think we have to go into them with the same approach, keep on the same path and stay focused. Hopefully we’ll get the Ws in the end.”
Middle Tennessee is 5-1 on the young season after knocking off Evansville 66-55 Sunday to capture the Challenge in Music City title. The Blue Raiders also knocked off Toledo and UNC-Wilmington to win the championship over the weekend. They’re led by senior F Jacorey Williams, an Arkansas transfer, who is averaging a team-best 21.6 points per game and ranks third on the squad pulling down 5.9 boards a game.
If Kennedy didn’t know much about his team before, he very well could get his answer this week.
“Big stretch for us just to kind of find out who we are,” he said.