As fall makes its long-awaited return to Oxford, so does Ole Miss basketball. After last year’s team fell just short of the National Invitational Tournament semifinals, head coach Andy Kennedy went back to the drawing board.
This year’s team will blend new recruits with seasoned veterans in hopes of finding an NCAA Tournament caliber combination.
“I am excited about this group,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got an eclectic mix of old and new. I think we addressed a lot of our needs based on some areas we felt like we needed to improve upon.”
Two areas Ole Miss will hope to improve on are defense and turnovers. The Rebels ranked 336th in turnovers among NCAA Division I programs last season; at the same time, their opponents’ collective turnovers ranked 38th in the country.
“I hope we can be better defensively,” Kennedy said. “We weren’t very good defensively, and we had a turnover problem because we were just so unsteady at the lead guard.”
That lead guard instability won’t plague the Rebels much this year. Sophomore point guard Breein Tyree’s knee is finally healthy, and the Ole Miss coaching staff expects big things from him.
“He’s now healthy and confident, and he’s got that experience,” Kennedy said. “He’s probably taken the biggest step of anyone on our team.”
Tyree averaged 12.55 points per game over the final nine games of 2017 while contributing just under two assists per game, as well. Far from polished, Tyree has plenty of upside and talent to match, but he won’t need to do it alone. Kennedy signed Illya Tyrtyshnik, who featured for Ukraine in the 2017 FIBA U18 World Championship, to share ball-handling duties with Tyree.
Junior guard Terence Davis also returns for the 2017-2018 season. The Mississippi native scored at least 20 points in six games last year, including a 30-point performance against Syracuse in the NIT.
“Typically, when a kid becomes a junior in college, now it’s time for him to take that next step,” Kennedy said. “If you’re capable of being an all-league player, which I think (Davis) is, that’s what we need from him this year.”
Completing the trio of returning Ole Miss guards, senior Deandre Burnett figures to improve on a statistically impressive 2016-2017 season. After averaging 16.5 points per game and leading the NCAA in free-throw percentage for much of the year, Burnett, a natural shooting guard shoehorned into point guard duties last year, could see his efficiency explode.
Where does that leave the Rebels’ front court? Sebastian Saiz, who led the SEC in double-doubles and earned All-SEC honors from The Associated Press, graduated and now plies his trade professionally for Club Baloncesto Miraflores in Spain. That’s a pretty big hole for anyone to fill. Enter the 7-foot Dominik Olejniczak.
After transferring from Drake in 2016, the center missed the 2016-2017 season because of NCAA regulations. According to the Ole Miss coaching staff, that missed time did not go to waste.
“He’s an incredible worker,” Kennedy said. “His body is in great shape. We just finished some of our conditioning stuff, and some of his numbers are really mind-boggling for a guy as big as he is.”
At power forward, on the other hand, the answer is a little less clear. Last season, Marcanvis Hymon and Justas Furmanavicius split time at the four spot, but neither made it his own. Furmanavicius was the more impressive of the two; the Lithuanian was a monster on the defensive end, averaging five rebounds a game in limited action, but made a habit of disappearing on offense. So Kennedy added a new forward, Jones County Junior College’s Bruce Stevens, to the mix over the summer.
At 6 feet 8 inches and 257 pounds, Stevens has SEC size and the coordination to match. He averaged more than 16 points per game while shooting 51.3 percent and pulled down 11.6 rebounds per game at Jones. His combination play with Olejniczak continues to impress and excite Kennedy’s staff.
“He’s really talented, and he’s got a big, strong body,” Kennedy said. “His skillset, with Dom, is probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen to this point. … The pieces fit. They’re complimentary. Bruce can really stretch. I’d be shocked if he didn’t make 50-plus threes this year.”
Rounding out Kennedy’s offseason additions is a pair of guards: Devontae Shuler, from Virginia’s famed Oak Hill Academy, and Markel Crawford, a graduate transfer from the University of Memphis.
Crawford, who averaged 12.8 points per game and shot 47.8 from the floor, could slot right into the Rebels’ scheme. A vocal leader on the court, Crawford will add points and guidance to the younger players on Kennedy’s team.
“We recruited (Crawford) out of high school, so I’m very familiar with him, and he’s exactly what we hoped he would be,” Kennedy said. “He’s going to be a perfect compliment to the guys we’ve got in place.”
Shuler arrived highly recommended from Oak Hill Academy, known for alumni like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. Kennedy hopes to keep Shuler’s role “simple” this season to acclimate the shooting guard to NCAA pace as quickly as possible. But Shuler’s on-ball production isn’t the only talent he’ll bring to Oxford: His defense, in particular, has impressed the Ole Miss staff. That’s good news for a team that sorely lacked perimeter defense last season.
“He is instinctively as good as I’ve ever had,” Kennedy said. “He’s just a ball-getter. … He gets the ball.”