As Blake Hinson strides confidently from the Humphrey Coliseum floor, fresh off of hanging a career-high 26 points on Mississippi State, the freshman forward looked to a camera, repeatedly stating, “Whose state? Our state!”
Hinson’s proclamation — the result of an emotionally-charged victory over a bitter in-state rival — wasn’t conjecture. The Rebels have defeated Mississippi State in nine of their past eleven contests, despite the Bulldogs dominating the Magnolia State in recruiting. However, after opening SEC play by dispatching their first three conference foes, perhaps Hinson should be asking another question: “Who’s conference?” While Tennessee is unquestionably the class of the Southeastern Conference (they sit at No. 3 nationally in the AP poll), there is a strong case to be made that Ole Miss isn’t far behind.
Kermit Davis and Co. were treated to good news when they arose Monday morning—news that they entered into the Associated Press’ Top 25 for the first time since February 2013. The Rebels, ranked No. 18, are the third highest ranked SEC team behind Tennessee and Auburn, and with a slate of competitive contests left on the schedule, they have ample opportunity to rise.
After a 13-2 run through their first fifteen games, the Rebels are squarely situated at the midpoint of their season. Sixteen games— half of the schedule—remain to be played, including six more match-ups with top-20 nationally ranked teams.
The Daily Mississippian has compiled six big numbers that have gotten Ole Miss this far. Let’s take a look at them.
It took the 2017-18 Ole Miss basketball team 28 games to secure their 12th win of the season, a win that would be their final of the year en route to a last-place finish in the SEC. This year’s team has notched their 12th in half the time with their victory over Auburn, and their 13th just three days later. Even if Ole Miss were to split the remaining 16 games, a 20-win season in Kermit Davis’ first year is in store.
That’s the combined points per game of Ole Miss’ backcourt Breein Tyree and Terence Davis. The duo is the second highest in the SEC behind Tennessee’s Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Tyree and Davis split duties in their first two SEC contests, as Tyree dropped 31 against Vanderbilt while Davis dropped 27 vs. Auburn. But against Mississippi State, they combined for 31—a hair under their season average. If Ole Miss projects any semblance of sustained success, the dynamic backcourt can’t take turns: they must continue to play off of each other.
Interior rebounding has been a struggle for Ole Miss so far, ranking No. 295 nationally in total rebounds. They’re last in the SEC in offensive rebounds secured and were -8 in the rebounding battle versus Mississippi State, including giving up 14 rebounds on the offensive glass. Missed rebounds seem to be a symptom of the 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone schemes Kermit Davis employs, and rebounds are expected to come by committee, as Ole Miss’ two bigs, Dominik Olejniczak and Bruce Stephens, are only averaging a combined 7.4 boards per game.
Ole Miss leads the SEC and is ranked No. 22 nationally in free throw percentage at 76.1 percent. Free throw percentage is typically the harbinger of success come March, and the Rebels have 6 of 8 rotation players shooting above 74 percent from the charity stripe. While Tyree and Shuler lead the team, 7-foot Olejniczak has greatly improved his stroke, hitting 75 percent of his attempts—a sign that he won’t be played off the floor in crunch time.
The Pavilion finally has a signature win. After opening in January 2016, Ole Miss hadn’t defeated a ranked opponent in its new arena. Despite being a midweek game at a time when students are still home for Winter break, the student section was full 30 minutes before the first tip and the building nearly sold out. On a national stage, Ole Miss proved that despite not having a reputation for being a basketball school, the Pavilion would be an extremely tough court to play on.
Dead last: that’s where SEC media projected Ole Miss to finish before the season started. A first-year head coach was trotting out virtually the same roster that went 12-20 a year prior, so it is tough to blame the voters. But, 15 games and an 18th national ranking have flipped that script. No coach will admit it, but the Ole Miss of old wasn’t receiving the same preparation as this team. Losses are considered upsets now. Games will be flexed on to CBS and ESPN. But that’s part of this new territory. As Coach Davis told his team in the locker room after Saturday’s win, “Welcome to the Top-25.”