Since before the season began, Ole Miss basketball hasn’t had any trouble scoring. With five players averaging double-digits and 36 points per game between the newly arrived duo of Deandre Burnett and Cullen Neal, this squad has plenty of firepower. The mystery so far, and the story that could define the rest of the season, is whether Head Coach Andy Kennedy’s defense can keep up with the scoring of the offense.
While the Rebels flashed serious talent at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands last week, the defense was a key reason that Ole Miss could not follow through on a near-upset over 10th-ranked Creighton. Burnett and his teammates led the Bluejays for much of the game, but couldn’t maintain their early intensity and focus until the final buzzer.
“We were leading that game for 26 minutes. If we can give that type of effort for 40 minutes instead of 26 minutes then, who knows, maybe Ole Miss would be ranked right now,” Burnett said.
Despite failing to protect its lead against Creighton and ultimately losing by nine points, the defense has improved as the season has progressed. Poor defense has caused unnecessarily close games since the Rebels’ exhibition win against Morehouse when they led by only single digits at halftime. Since then, five of their six games have finished with a margin of less than 10 points. Burnett, Kennedy and Neal all posited that a lack of communication could be the largest factor to blame for defensive struggles.
“Once we start communicating better and trusting each other a little more on the court I think our defense will start progressing better,” Neal said.
This could be a point of hope for Rebel fans as it suggests more of an issue with chemistry than an issue with talent. Time spent playing, practicing and learning together could alleviate many of the hardships this new team faces. Fans can also breathe easy as Ole Miss has played thus far without its best shot-blocker Nate Morris, who was suspended for a violation of team rules earlier in the year. While the exact date of his return is uncertain, his reach should greatly impact the defensive end upon his return.
In the meantime, the young Rebels are faced with a difficult situation in which they must focus on learning and communication in order to improve defensively while keeping an eye on upcoming matchups with Middle Tennessee and Memphis. Ole Miss needs time to mature and form a cohesive defensive mindset while also pushing the limits against other top-tier NCAA talent.
The weeks ahead will reveal a number of things and, if Neal is correct, Kennedy may need to redirect his focus toward limiting the rotation to allow a more defined chemistry to form between his core players. This may prove difficult, but is necessary if Ole Miss wants to run make a run in the SEC and perhaps even NCAA tournaments. The scoring is there, but the defense will surely be the defining factor of how far this team can go.