Ole Miss held serve Thursday night.
Cue the broken record, but NCAA Tournament resumes are built or dismantled in the non-conference portion of the college basketball schedule. And Ole Miss, for the most part, has done what it’s needed to in order to position itself firmly in the postseason picture with SEC games around the corner. Have the Rebels missed out on some opportunities to boost their stock? No doubt. Creighton is No. 3 in the RPI, according to RealTimeRPI.com, while Middle Tennessee is No. 8 and Virginia Tech is No. 49. Just one win in any of those three games would have strengthened their standing significantly, especially either of the Top 10 RPI games. But those losses certainly won’t hurt them come selection time. No, the red marks come from those truly damaging losses.
And that’s where Ole Miss’ current three-game non-conference home stand comes into play.
The Rebels easily handled Murray State. Sure, the final score gives off the impression of a close game thanks to a 29-14 Murray State run over the final nine minutes, but a back-and-forth game early gave way to a near-20-point snoozer for most of night. They didn't sweat much for a win and staged off any and all threats to put away an inferior opponent — as it should be in such games. Murray State entered play with an RPI rank of 244. Next up are two teams (Bradley and South Alabama) also in the 200s in RPI. The Rebels have to protect home floor in November and December for their season to have meaning. They’re 7-3 now. A 9-3 record once No. 6 Kentucky rolls into town Dec. 29 would only add more weight to what could potentially be a season-defining opportunity. Ole Miss is doing what it’s supposed to do.
There’s a lot to like about Ole Miss, thought there's plenty to work on, as Kennedy alluded to postgame. But it appears any mystery about rotations or roles are all but settled. The identity has been formed in many ways. Breein Tyree is the point guard. Cullen Neal is the No. 1 option for the No. 2 unit, the sixth man and the shot-in-the-arm offense when Ole Miss needs points. Terence Davis, who can make baffling plays at times, is the spark plug who makes Ole Miss longer and more athletic. Sebastian Saiz is the constant, a walking double-double who hammers opponents in the post. Deandre Burnett is Mr. Reliable, the player head coach Andy Kennedy goes to for a basket in crunch time. On and on. Ole Miss knows what it is. The Rebels are deep and have scoring potential 1-8. They’ve improved defensively each game, and the return of freshman forward Nate Morris — a true five — from suspension to back up Saiz and offer a rim-protecting presence is but another weapon available to Kennedy. And I'm not sure they've even hit their ceiling or come all that close.
Ole Miss is going to compete all season, barring injuries, and be right in the thick of the NCAA Tournament discussion, if not well-positioned for a berth well into March, especially if they continue to take care of business as they did Thursday. Because that’s what good teams do: win games they’re supposed to, compete on the road (and ideally steal one or two) and get out in front of the RPI.
Accept it, Ole Miss fans. The Rebels are good.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On the win: “I just told our team for about 32 minutes we played pretty good. We defended in the second half, the zone was as active as I’ve seen it for us in the 1-3-1. We were having good ball movement. We were good on the glass. We only had three turnovers with under eight to play, and we finish with 11. We don’t leave with a good taste in our mouth, but quite frankly, until we stop cutting corners … we cut corners. I’ve got to do a better job of making sure that does not happen. Guys shortchange cuts, and a lot of that y’all won’t see. We shortchange cuts. We didn’t finish the way I would have liked. We missed eight layups. Eight layups. Eight layups. And for an SEC scholarship player. Layups I can make right now in this tie and these slippery shoes. Eight layups. Really? Gotta get better.” On why Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey didn’t appear in the game: “Just trying to win.” On Sebastian Saiz: “Doubled him. He’s going to be doubled every game. Why wouldn’t you? Are you scared of our fours, (Marcanvis Hymon) and Justas (Furmanavicius)? Dynamic offensively. I’d double every game. I’d press us every game. If I’m Bradley I’d be working on it right now.” On Deandre Burnett: “Awful. I didn’t like it at all. Five turnovers? He’s supposed to be our go-to. We brought him here to be the bell cow. That’s why he came. That’s why he left Miami (Fla.), because he wasn’t playing. I’m playing you. I need you to lead me. Sebas needs some help. We need some others guys to step up. Rasheed Brooks, where are you? T.D. has flashes. We can’t count on T.D., he’s a sophomore. Come on, ‘Dre. It’s why you’re here.” On if his frustration is from most every player sans Sebas shows flashes but is inconsistent: "All of them. All of them except Sebas. Sebas has been solid. We’re asking Sebas sometimes to get out of his lane. We all know what he is. We’re trying to put him in a position to be successful. Fifteen and 15, I’m playing him 34 minutes. Karlis (Silins) has unfortunately torn his ACL, so we’ve got to get Nate up to speed where he can help us. Nate’s got good instincts. Nate can protect. I thought he gave us good minutes in limited time. With the way our other guys are playing offensively, as inefficient as we are really on the perimeter when you look at are percentages, if Sebas isn’t in there, it’s hard to manufacture offense. That’s the biggest reason Nate's not getting opportunity early. We gotta keep working. We’re going to put it in.”
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - Junior Deandre Burnett led Ole Miss with 24 points and senior Sebastian Saiz posted his fifth double-double of the year with 15 and 15 rebounds, as the Rebels defeated Murray State 78-73 Thursday.
Ole Miss (7-3) had a comfortable advantage for most of the game — leading by 20 at one point in the second half — but a late Murray State run made things interesting. The Racers rallied to pull within 77-73 with 17.7 seconds remaining.
Burnett scored a big chunk of his points on free throws, making 14 of 16. Sebastian Saiz added 15 points and 15 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season.
Murray State (5-6) was led by Terrell Miller, who scored 27 points.
Ole Miss led 43-31 at halftime, taking the lead for good with 10:32 remaining in the first half on Burnett's 3-pointer that made it 22-19.
The Rebels were able to bounce back from an 80-75 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Murray State game was the first of a four-game homestand that includes upcoming games against Bradley, South Alabama and Kentucky.
Ole Miss returns to action in the Pavilion on Monday, taking on Bradley at 8 p.m.