The SEC has seen two ships cross in the night when it comes to the race for its conference championship. Ole Miss basketball wasn’t supposed to be a contender, while Kentucky certainly wasn’t supposed to be an NCAA bubble team. But that’s how the season has unfolded to date. It’s Ole Miss that’s tied with Florida atop the conference standings, with Missouri lurking just behind. And it’s Kentucky that’s struggling. With the Rebels set to host last year’s national champion, today is as good a time as any to take a deeper look at Ole Miss basketball and see if they’re the real deal.
We have to begin by noting that even though the Rebels are 17-2, the resume is not littered with impressive wins. The non-conference mark was padded by piling up easy wins, while also losing to Middle Tennessee and Indiana State. Both are pretty good midmajor programs, but losing to them certainly doesn’t suggest an SEC team is ready to go hang with Florida.
While the 6-0 start in league play is eye-catching, the quality of the opposition is not. Ole Miss has beaten an okay Tennessee team twice, along with Arkansas who is fairly average. The Rebs have beaten bad teams in Vanderbilt and Auburn. The one impressive win was Missouri, whom Ole Miss nailed 64-49 two and a half weeks ago, but there’s an asterisk here too —Mizzou was playing without its best player in Laurence Bowers.
Thus, we can give very high marks to Ole Miss for consistency—it’s not easy to go through an extended stretch of games against average teams and never slip up even once. But we have to reserve judgment on their ability to compete with the conference’s best.
Ole Miss’ most explosive player is junior guard Marshall Henderson, who averages 19 ppg. He’s supported by two good forwards in seniors Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Holloway is the better of the two averaging 15 points/10 rebounds, while Buckner averages a 10/8. It was these two players who exploited Missouri’s weaknesses on the frontcourt with Bowers out. Then running alongside Henderson in the backcourt is senior Nick Williams, who knows his role and kicks in 10 ppg.
The weaknesses on this team would be that Henderson is the only one who takes three-point shots with any regularity and at 36 percent, he hits them enough to justify shooting, but he’s not so deadly that it’s a real threat to a defense. And there’s no true post player. This is the kind of team I like over the long haul—most college teams can’t exploit you in the post and three-point shooting comes and goes. The fact you don’t rely on the trey means you’ll win consistently in a conference schedule. The problem comes with the one-and-done format of college basketball in March. Eventually you play a team that’s shooting well from outside, or you run into someone who can create a matchup problem for you in the post.
Of course that just means I wouldn’t bet Ole Miss to win the national championship, and I doubt if even many Rebel fans are thinking along those lines. The question for now is whether they can keep hanging in the race for the SEC regular season title. We’ll get at least an inkling tonight against Kentucky. Then comes a big test on Saturday at Florida (7 PM ET, ESPNU). And then the following Saturday is a game at Missouri when it looks like Bowers will be back in the lineup. We know the Rebs are competitive and consistent. Now let’s find out if their title-worthy in their own backyard.
SEC SHIPS PASSING IN THE NIGHT
Kentucky is, of course, the team Ole Miss has replaced as the third wheel in the SEC race with Florida and Missouri. The alarm bells are going off for the Wildcats, who are currently projected as a #10 seed in today’s NCAA Tournament landscape, as laid out by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. That’s bubble territory and not what anyone was expecting. I thought UK would be rolling by this time, and I’m still on the optimistic side for John Calipari’s team to have a strong February.
Freshman center Nerlens Noel is playing well—the scoring, at 10 ppg, is modest, but the kid grabs nine boards and blocks four shots a game. There’s quality three-point shooting from Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. And guard Archie Goodwin is a good all-around player, with one exception. And it’s that exception that might be the source of the problem. Goodwin takes more three-point shots than anyone on this team and he only hits 29 percent. Maybe it’s time for Calipari to tell the kid to put the ball on the floor instead of jacking up the treys.
After tonight’s trip to Ole Miss, Kentucky will play Texas A&M. And as long as we’re on the subject of ships passing in the night, remind to never again sing the praises of A&M basketball. A couple weeks ago, I noted their 2-0 start in SEC play and wrote a complimentary article on their chances of hanging in the race. I could live with the fact that they got blown out by Florida immediately after the article went online. I can’t live with the fact they still haven’t won a game since, including losses to SEC cellar-dwellers LSU & Georgia. The Aggies’ Elston Turner is still a quality scorer, but no one in this lineup is averaging more than three assists per game. Let’s see some ball movement.