Scouting Report: Ole Miss

This Wednesday's home game for the Vanderbilt men's basketball team is not terrifically complicated. Forget tactics. Forget strategy. Forget the SEC race. Forget, for that matter, the thoroughly mediocre Ole Miss Rebels. There's one thing Vandy needs to do in this contest, and it's not hard to figure out what that goal actually is.


Siena ran VU out of Tampa in 2008. Mississippi State overpowered the Dores in the 2010 SEC Tournament semifinals. Murray State grabbed the one truly essential rebound at the end of a first-round fistfight in the 2010 Big Dance. Now, Vanderbilt has tasted its latest and most humiliating slice of humble pie at the hands of the Tennessee Volunteers, whose pipsqueak point guard – Melvin Goins – outfought two black-shirted VU players for the biggest board of Saturday's 67-64 Tennessee triumph. Year after year, Vanderbilt teams are losing games because of deficient toughness, so against Ole Miss, the scoreboard won't matter nearly as much as the hoped-for emergence of a new blue-collar identity near the rim. Will Stallings's students deliver the goods on that front? We'll just have to find out.

OLE MISS AT-A-GLANCE

For the casual college basketball fan who doesn't understand the deeper yet highly conditional value of numbers, it might seem that Ole Miss basketball really isn't in bad shape. Over the past four complete seasons (2007 through 2010), the Rebels have won at least 21 games in three of them and at least 24 games twice. That seems pretty good at first glance, but then comes the bigger and more overarching reality: Ole Miss fattens up on junk food wins and doesn't beat anyone of importance or prominence. The two 24-win seasons were both fueled by runs to the NIT Final Four in New York's Madison Square Garden. Playing in a constantly-impoverished SEC West that doesn't have Nolan Richardson at Arkansas or Cliff Ellis at Auburn or Wimp Sanderson at Alabama, Ole Miss has access to wins, but not the wins that will resonate with the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee. That's why a 21-win regular season won't produce an NCAA Tournament ticket. More specifically, that's why the Rebels haven't been able to put on their Dancing shoes in the field of 65 (now 68) since 2002, when they lost to UCLA in the first round. This is a program going nowhere quickly, and the 2010-2011 season isn't pulling the Rebels out of the muck.

Ole Miss's best win this season is clearly… Penn State. That's how little steak the Rebels have on their resume. That modestly nice win is more than canceled out by non-conference losses to Dayton and Colorado State. In the SEC, things have gotten even worse for Kennedy, a coach whose run-in with the police blotter a few years ago should have gotten him fired for reasons not pertaining to basketball. It's a wonder he's still around in Oxford; Ole Miss is 0-3 in the SEC, and moreover, the Rebels have looked really bad in the process of serving up a bagel. Kennedy's crew didn't show up this past Saturday in a 98-76 home loss to Georgia. Yes, the Bulldogs are good, but being non-competitive against a team that's merely on the fence for an NCAA Tournament bid (likely, but still on the fence) is no statement of progress in the Magnolia State.

Ole Miss's utter lack of resilience means that if Vanderbilt needs practice in the art of demonstrating genuine toughness, the Dores have received their perfect sparring partner before the weekend's key non-conference clash against Saint Mary's.

STAT PACK: salient stats about the Rebels to this point in the season

Ole Miss is second in the SEC in field goal percentage at 46.8.

Ole Miss is first in the SEC with a two-point field goal percentage of 54.2.

Ole Miss is second in the SEC in effective field goal percentage at 53.2.

Ole Miss is first in the SEC in free throw percentage at 74.1.

Ole Miss is last in the SEC with 0.987 points allowed per possession.

Ole Miss is 11th in the SEC in defensive field goal percentage allowed (42.5).

Ole Miss is 11th in the SEC in defensive 3-point shooting percentage allowed (35.3).

Ole Miss is 10th in the SEC in rebounding with 33 rebounds per game.

STARTING LINEUP

Forward – Steadman Short – Junior, 6-9, 235; 2010-11: 3.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg

Short is really a blank slate, a tabula rasa on which the story of a season has yet to be written. The junior has never attempted more than six shots in a game or earned more than three free throws. He's reached double figures in rebounds on two occasions and registered as many as two blocks exactly once. As is the case with most Ole Miss players, Vandy simply has to respect Short and exceed his work ethic on the floor.

Forward – Reginald Buckner – Sophomore 6-8, 233; 2010-11: 7.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.9 blocks per game

This is one of two Ole Miss players whose numbers and production demand extra attention from the Dores. Buckner is the Rebels' leader in four main statistical categories: rebounding, blocks, field goal percentage, and effective field goal percentage. Buckner has given the Rebels what little degree of continuity they've been able to enjoy in the paint. He's a hard worker, which therefore means that Vanderbilt needs to minimize his level of impact, especially on the glass. It's hard enough for VU to box out opposing guards, as the recent past has shown us.

Guard – Trevor Gaskins Junior, 6-2, 210; 2010-11: 8.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg

Gaskins suffered a hamstring strain on Dec. 23 against Colorado State, forcing him to miss three games at the end of December, just before the start of SEC competition. Gaskins is being worked into the starting lineup by Kennedy; he was the team's third-leading scorer at the time of his injury. Gaskins has been slowed down by his health issues, though; he's averaged just under five points a game and only 0.8 rebounds per contest since he returned to action. It will be worth noting if Gaskins is able to reacquire his pre-injury form against Vanderbilt.

Guard– Chris Warren – Senior, 5-10, 168; 2010-11: 18.4 ppg, 4.2 apg

This is where Kennedy butters his bread. Warren leads the Rebels in nine major statistical categories: points, minutes, foul shooting (95 percent, everyone!), assists, assist-turnover ratio, efficiency rating, points per shot, true shooting percentage, and points per 40 minutes. If Vandy's frontcourt must focus on shutting down Buckner, the Dores' backcourt's main task is to contain Warren. The senior has become a more efficient player this season, but when one realizes that Ole Miss just doesn't test itself against the very best teams in college basketball, that level of growth – though real within a narrow and immediate context – has to be perceived with a grain of salt. Warren has compiled a lot of 50-percent shooting performances this season, but against Georgia, he went 3-for-12 from the field and fell off the map. The not-so-disciplined Warren still emerges once in a while, and that's the Warren Vandy must work to resurrect on Wednesday.

Guard – Zach Graham Senior, 6-6, 218; 2010-11: 14.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg

Graham went 8-of-13 from the field and 5-of-5 from the foul line this past Saturday against Georgia, but as is the case with so many of Ole Miss's inflated shooting-percentage statistics, it's hard to take pretty numbers seriously when they come in a 22-point loss that was never remotely competitive (or, for that matter, a 22-point win against a feeble cupcake foe). It's hard to put a lot of stock in the Rebels' positive numbers; a program that's been outside the NCAA Tournament candy store for eight years – going on nine – is saddled with persistent deficiencies for a reason.

BENCH

Ole Miss went only eight deep with its rotation in a five-point loss to Mississippi State a week ago, but Kennedy was able to lengthen the bench to six players and get an 11-man rotation against Georgia on Saturday. Of the six reserves, four of them saw meaningful minutes (10 or more). Terrance Henry and Nick Williams actually started against Mississippi State, with Williams getting 26 minutes against Georgia. Dundrecous Nelson and Demario Cox also had their chance to make an impact versus UGA as Kennedy madly searched for effective combinations on the floor, but to no avail. Perhaps the chemists on the UM staff will find the right mixture on Wednesday. One thing is clear: Vandy needs to be ready to defend and counter 11 different Ole Miss performers in this game.

KEYS TO THE GAME

1. Toughness, toughness, toughness. Really – Vandy can afford to eschew 3-pointers. The Commodores can afford to play this game untraditionally. The one thing VU can't afford to do is play soft. This is a time when a basketball team needs to re-program and re-orient itself, beginning anew a commitment to sledgehammer the ball to the tin and destroy an opponent on the boards. Since Ole Miss is a poor rebounding team, this is exactly the night for every Commodore to dedicate himself to hustle plays, winning 50-50 balls, and creating a new culture of hard work on the court. If VU outworks Ole Miss, it will win anyway. Sweat equity and elbow grease are the only things that matter; the result will take care of itself.

2. Go postal. It is noticeable and alarming that Vandy's big men other than Festus Ezeli can't really do much as back-to-the-basket post players. VU needs a counterbalance to its perimeter shooting and open-court skill. The value of post-up scoring can't be overstated on this team, given its ability to reshape the Dores' identity and make defenses that much more unsure of when and how to double-team the likes of Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins. If more post scorers emerge on the Dores, this team's offensive efficiency will skyrocket.

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