Scouting Report: Ole Miss
The Vanderbilt men's basketball team is failing to win the high-value games against the SEC's best, so the very least the Dores can do as February unfolds is win the games they're expected to win. Don't sneeze at the importance of these games against the also-rans of the SEC; if Vanderbilt loses them between now and Selection Sunday, VU's resume is thin enough that coach Kevin Stallings's crew could slip to the dreaded No. 8 or No. 9 seed. It's not likely, but it's definitely possible, especially since the entirety of the SEC is sliding backward at the moment, with Florida and Mississippi State also moving in the wrong direction. Vanderbilt needs to continue to take care of business against the likes of Ole Miss; a team can do damage with a No. 6 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, but a ticket to the 8-9 game would create a lot of anger and self-loathing on a day meant for excitement and celebration.
Consider this game against Ole Miss the "8-9 avoidance game." Vanderbilt needs to bolster its seeding if it wants to raise a racket in a March Madness bracket.
OLE MISS AT-A-GLANCE
Ole Miss basketball seems hopelessly stuck in a morass of mediocrity. The Rebels haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2002 under former coach Rob Evans, who guided the program to the 2001 Sweet 16 as a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional. You need skilled players to reach the upper tier of college basketball, and the plain fact is that under current coach Andy Kennedy – a Bob Huggins disciple who has piloted the Rebels since 2006 – Ole Miss just hasn't landed many pure shooters or gifted scorers. Oxford is not blessed with first-rate basketball facilities, and as a result, prime recruits don't want to lace up their sneakers in Tad Smith Coliseum. It also didn't help that Kennedy got enmeshed in a nasty and combative incident with a cab driver in December 2008, leading to a guilty plea on a disorderly conduct charge shortly thereafter.
Given that six years have produced two NIT semifinal appearances and nothing more, the Ole Miss administration – so quick to fire football coaches over the past decade – should be willing to fire Kennedy, but for some odd reason, it has stuck with a coach who has not been able to distinguish himself on or off the court. This would seem to be the kind of program that could use a fresh and dynamic presence, but if Kennedy remains employed in Oxford, it's hard to see how this ship is going to be turned around, especially with Arkansas and Alabama poised to be better in the coming years and LSU doing a commendable job of battling through injuries this season.
In 2012, Ole Miss has put up a good fight against capable opponents at home, making this game a typical SEC West trap for Vanderbilt. No, the Rebels aren't "Bud Walton Arena good" the way Arkansas is on its home floor, but twin wins over Arkansas and Mississippi State at home (Vandy couldn't beat MSU in Nashville, after all…) show that the Rebels can be tough at the Tad Pad. They lost to Florida by only four points as well (and on a Thursday night, no less). For all of Ole Miss's problems – and they are manifold – Kennedy's crew could very easily prevail, and that's the main idea Stallings needs to convey to his team before tip-off time.
Forward – Terrance Henry – Senior, 6-10, 210 2011-12: 11.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, .506 two-point shooting percentage (82 of 162)
Let's sum up Henry succinctly: On a team of bad shooters, Henry shoots relatively well. Why? Not because he has a silky-smooth stroke, but because his length enables him to crash the boards and snag second-chance points. Twice in late January, Henry topped 20 points. In each of those games – against Georgia and Florida – Henry snapped down 10 rebounds. That's not an idle coincidence. Yes, Henry can occasionally step out to the perimeter and hit a few threes – he was 3 for 5 from long distance against Florida – but he averages roughly two three-point attempts per game. He is a point of focus for Vanderbilt as a rebounder, not as a shooter.
Forward – Murphy Holloway – Junior, 6-7, 240; 2011-12: 10.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg
Holloway illustrates even more powerfully the rebounding prowess of the Rebels. Blessed with more width and muscle than the string-bean figure of Henry, Holloway very nearly averages a double-double due to his work on the glass. He does this by diving into low-post play with an unflinching and feisty mindset, a commitment to the internal combat of basketball that unfolds while fans are watching a shot fly through the air. When the roundball is released, Holloway is busy using his posterior to seal off his man and carve out space near the tin. He makes it a point to own those precious four feet of real estate, right near the block-charge half-circle. Vanderbilt needs to be able to work as hard as Holloway does, and the matter doesn't have to be more complicated than that.
Forward – Reginald Buckner – Junior, 6-9, 225; 2011-12: 7.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg
Buckner joins Holloway as one of the "Board Brothers" on Ole Miss's formidable rebounding front line. Buckner has no scoring instincts at all, but he crashes the glass nearly as effectively as Holloway does, to the tune of more than eight per game. It's worth noting this point about Ole Miss's three starting forwards: Their heights and weights are inverted in terms of generating maximum performance. It's Henry who – at 6-10 – should be carrying 240 pounds. Holloway would probably be a much more capable scorer if he played at Henry's 210 pounds with his 6-7 frame. It's Buckner who has a comparatively proportional body at his height and weight, but his inability to translate his rebounding into scoring is simply a mystery. It's really rather unfortunate: Buckner is a hard-working player who brings his lunch pail to the arena every night. Yet, his exertions are not complemented by an elegant, full-bodied skill set, and that's a big part of the reason why Ole Miss basketball won't be found in the field of 68 come Selection Sunday.
Guard – Nick Williams – Junior, 6-4, 210; 2011-12: 10.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg
On a team with three blue-collar forwards who can't shoot particularly well, Williams – as the two-guard – needs to be able to knock down shots. He generally isn't up to the task. He is powerfully built for a shooting guard – he's not small or rail-thin for a player at his position – but Williams cannot translate his physical attributes into points; you either have a pure release or you don't, and the Mobile, Ala., product doesn't – he hits just 31 percent (rounded to the nearest whole number) of his three-point attempts. If Mississippi is ever going to become a big deal in college basketball, it will need a bona-fide sniper in its starting five. The Rebels usually play hard-nosed ball near the rim, but their lack of scoring punch and balletic basketball excellence on the perimeter has so consistently caught up with them in an SEC populated by dynamic Kentucky guards, quick Tennessee teams under Bruce Pearl, Vanderbilt's flowing offensive sets, and – in the present tense – Arkansas's (once-again) emergent 40 minutes of hell.
Guard – Jarvis Summers – Freshman, 6-4, 182; 2011-12: 10 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.3 rpg
Summers is one final manifestation of Ole Miss's mismatched pieces. It's not his fault – Summers is a freshman who has actually performed quite well this season – but this Ole Miss team needed a Chris Warren to anchor everything at the point. With a veteran point guard on the floor, one could have envisioned the Rebels making some noise in 2012. Summers has given it his best shot, but as a first-year player, he simply should not be expected to master the position. He's growing into his role – he doesn't shoot his team out of games, averaging under three triples per contest. He's not a trigger happy guard, and he knows that he needs to be prudent in his shot selection; not every point guard picks up that point in year one. On the other hand, Summers turns the ball over roughly three times per game, and as his body begins to fill out – while his comfort level increases – that number will go down. This season, however, will remain difficult, and that's life as a starting freshman point guard in a power conference. There's not much Ole Miss can do to change the prevailing reality.
CenterDemarco Cox and guard Jelan Kendrick are the only Rebels who gain an appreciable amount of minutes off the bench. This is another casualty of Ole Miss's recruiting (or lack thereof). If the Rebels could bring potent scorers or change-of-pace players from the pine, they could blend their rebounding prowess into a more diversified attack, but Ole Miss is really only able to play the game in one manner, and that's ultimately a good way of underscoring why this team isn't ready to make the next leap to the NCAA Tournament.
Keys to the Game
1) Work. Hard. On the glass. Holloway, Buckner and Henry form a mean three-headed rebounding monster. If Vanderbilt locks down on the defensive boards against the Rebels' trio of forwards, it's almost impossible to see how Ole Miss will win this game. The Rebels will be fresh-legged on this SEC Thursday night, so as long as the Dores can match (if not eclipse) UM's intensity on the low block, they should be in very good shape. It's just a matter of putting out that effort and tending to the details of boxing out each and every time down the floor.
2) Thoughtful shot selection. Shoot when the floor is balanced. Shoot when teammates are in position to rebound. Shoot so that a shot isn't blocked, starting an Ole Miss fast break the other way. As long as Vanderbilt is judicious in its shot selection and does not give the Rebels easy buckets in transition, the Dores will remain a step ahead of Ole Miss.
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