True freshman point guard Breein Tyree is a big reason why.
Tyree was recruited and signed as a three-star prospect out of St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, N.J., in the fall of 2015. Head coach Andy Kennedy and staff envisioned Tyree as the Rebels’ primary point guard, ideally, from day one of his true freshman season.
However, an ACL injury as a senior delayed his development. He didn’t take over for what had been a game of musical chairs, of sorts, between veteran transfers Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett until Jan. 14 against South Carolina. He’s played fewer than 23 minutes in only one of seven games since, finally showing signs of the player Ole Miss believed it was getting well over a year ago.
“I think, physically, he’s in a good place,” Kennedy said. “He hasn’t had any setbacks as it relates to the injury. Now we’re just going through the freshman growth — up down, up down. He’s stepped up and made plays. I played for two Hall of Fame coaches, Jim Valvano and Gene Bartow, and that’s one thing they told me every day. They’d say, ‘Kennedy, players make plays.’ And they’re right.”
The Rebels have won two straight games — including an impressive 81-74 win at Vanderbilt on Saturday — to run their record to 14-9 overall and 5-5 in SEC play. Tyree scored 11 points on 4 of 9 shooting. Ole Miss is 3-0 in its last three games played in Nashville.
Perhaps most impressively, though, Tyree turned the ball over one time. The Rebels led the SEC, and were one of the worst teams in the country, in turnovers in the season’s first few months. They had double-digit turnovers in each of their first 20 games.
But with the ball primarily in Tyree’s hands, they’ve cut their miscues down considerably in their last three, totaling a combined 24 en route to a 2-1 record. Their lone loss was a 78-75, last-minute final against No. 2 Baylor — a game in which Tyree scored a career-high 20 points. Eighteen of those points came in the second half.
Tyree has been credited with just one turnover in six of his last seven games.
“At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t playing as much,” Tyree said. “I was whining, complaining to the coaches saying I should be playing. But I don’t think I was ready with my knee that much at the beginning of the season. But now, as the season goes on, I’m getting stronger, and I’m getting more confidence in my knee. And it’s also a learning experience. This game is faster than high school. Every game is a new opportunity for me to learn.”
Ole Miss is currently No. 58 in the RPI, holding a strength of schedule of 27. The Rebels have four Top 100 RPI wins on their postseason resume, and their upcoming games feature five teams with RPI rankings in the Top 100. Ole Miss next travels to face the Tennessee Volunteers, who sit No. 35 in the RPI.
In short, opportunities abound for the Rebels to play their way into the NCAA Tournament, and they’re playing, inarguably, their best basketball at the most opportune time. The emergence of Tyree only provides more hope for what the next month-plus could bring, as well as the long-term future of the program.
Tyree said he always knew his time would come. Granted, exhibiting patience wasn’t easy, but he said his coaches never lost faith and continued to encourage him. They’ve been rewarded with an emerging star at one of the game’s most important positions.
“They were just saying your time is going to come,” he said. “You’re a freshman, and you just came off a knee injury. They recruited me here to play the point guard position and I got injured. They said the time is going to come.”
His time is now.