Kermit Davis Jr., head coach at Ole Miss, knows a little about under-valued teams making runs in the NCAA Tournament. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

This was just three games ago for Ole Miss basketball: The Rebels were 8-8 overall, a disappointing 3-6 in the Southeastern Conference. They were coming off double-digit losses to Arkansas and Georgia. They were playing decent defense, but the offense seemed terribly out of sync. Three-point shot attempts clanged away like so many unanswered prayers.

Actually, prayers get answered more often than Ole Miss shots went in the basket. In those losses to Arkansas and Georgia, the Rebels were a combined 3 for 29 from 3-point land. That’s right: 3 for 29. You have much better odds than that in carney games at the fair.

Rick Cleveland

Kermit Davis Jr.’s team was dangerously close to the playing-out-the-season stage. Ole Miss’s NET ranking, a prime component of what it takes to qualify for the postseason, was No. 69 in the nation, far from what earns consideration for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Now then, let’s look at what has happened in those last three games over a span of just eight days: Ole Miss knocked off 10th ranked Tennessee 52-50 on a Tuesday night in Oxford. Then, the Rebels went on the road to defeat Auburn 86-84 in overtime. And then they returned home to crush 10th ranked Missouri 80-59 Wednesday night.

Who were these guys?

The gang that couldn’t shoot straight suddenly did. The same team that shot 3 for 29 from behind the arc in two games a couple weeks ago, hit 8 for 20 against Missouri. The team that had records of 8-8 and 3-6 is now 11-8 and 6-6. That NET ranking has risen from 69th to 56th.

The Rebels are far from in the tournament. Indeed, they are not yet even on the proverbial tournament bubble. But they are definitely in the conversation for being on the bubble if that makes sense. And they are playing by far their best basketball.

What has happened? As you might suspect, it’s far more than the basketball just started going in the basket. As often happens in this crazy sport, the outside shooting game started to click when the Rebels started looking inside first. Specifically, the Rebels looked inside to Romello White, the transfer from Arizona State, who scored 14 in the low-scoring win over Tennessee, and then 30 in the high-scoring win over Auburn.

“Romello is just playing better, posting better, and we’re doing a better job of throwing it to him,” Davis said.

As the opposition sags back to defend White, the Rebels get better looks from the outside. Better looks produce more makes.

But it’s not just White. The Rebels, across the board, are playing better, especially the guards. Off-guard Jarkel Joiner has found his range, which is more mid-range than from behind the arc. And Devontae Shuler, the point guard, is playing like an All-Conference first teamer. He scored 15 against Tennessee, 26 more against Auburn, and 15 more against Missouri. And, says Davis, Shuler is playing much better defensively and making plays without the ball in his hands.

Here’s what some fans may miss with all this offensive improvement. Better defensive play has been the catalyst. So much of the Rebels’ point production comes as a direct result of the defense, particularly the complicated 1-3-1 zone that has been Davis’s bread and butter as a coach. The trapping defense, which often evolves into a 2-3 but sometimes a man-to-man, produces turnovers in bunchs. Opponents have a difficult time preparing for it because they rarely see it, and it’s hard to duplicate in practice. It is almost like preparing for the wishbone in football in that you almost never see it and you can’t replicate it in preparing for a game.

But the Ole Miss resurgence is more than all that. As Davis puts it, “We were never that far away. We were up nine at Florida and didn’t close them out. We were up seven against Wichita State and didn’t get it done. We win those two games – which we should have – where would we be now? I think people would be talking about us probably being in the tournament.”

As it is, the Rebels are still dangerously close to being out. A winning record in the SEC is a must and the Rebels are at .500 now. They play at South Carolina Saturday. The Gamecocks, a team hammered by COVID-19 this season, have played only 13 games and are 5-8 overall and 3-6 in the league.

They are also dangerous, as evident in a 3-point loss to No. 11 Alabama Tuesday night.

After South Carolina, the Rebels have home games left with Mississippi State and Kentucky and road games with Vanderbilt and Missouri.

All are winnable if the Rebels play as well as they have in the last three games. All are lose-able if they revert.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.