1) I think while it’s a legitimate criticism that Terence Davis, a preseason All-SEC selection, has a propensity to settle for contested threes, especially early in the game as he searches for his shot and rhythm, his long-range ability is an undeniable weapon. When he takes threes within the context of the offense, following the options of continuity sets, his distance efficiency jumps significantly. A corner three is one of the best shots in basketball, due, but not limited to, the distance from line to basket. Put simply, it’s a shorter distance than typical perimeter attempts, effectively a jumper look with a three-point outcome. But it takes the trust of a coach, and a set play run for a particular player, to get them with consistency. It should be noted, the corner three is among Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy’s favorite plays. And in such situations, Kennedy will almost always call on Davis, Deandre Burnett, Devontae Shuler or Breein Tyree, in that order, and with good reason. Twice Kennedy called a set where Davis ran baseline for a corner shot after Eastern Kentucky had cut the Ole Miss lead to either single digits or a deficit that bordered on uncomfortable. With the score 59-50, Tyree brought the ball down the floor and motioned Davis from right to left. Davis popped free thanks to the efforts of Dominik Olejniczak, who executed a baseline pick. While the pass was low, Davis was true and found the bottom of the net and no rim — another example of what the coaches are consistently preaching to Davis: play controlled, don’t settle and the offense will come. Low-percentage shots are unnecessary. If it’s not happening early, be patient, ‘cause it’ll happen eventually. Kennedy will make sure of it. Davis was 3 of 8 from three (he finished with 16 points), with at least two of his makes from the corner. That should be his game.
2) I think Devontae Shuler earned his first career start Monday night and it won’t be his last this season. Shuler followed up his 14-point effort in his Ole Miss debut against Louisiana-Lafayette with 12 points in the 85-75 win over Eastern Kentucky, including scoring five of Ole Miss’ first 10 points. While the final numbers don’t jump off the page, his usage certainly does. Kennedy ran Marshall Henderson-like sets for Shuler, including his first three-point make, when Shuler ran baseline, his man trailing, and picked up a top-of-the-perimeter pick. Naturally, he nailed the shot. He has a similar mindset to Henderson — a fearless, conscience-free shooter who is, even two games in, a deadly, heat-check three-point gunner. Sure, Shuler was only 2 of 6 from three, but he was among the team leaders in offense run through him. Three times in the second half Shuler spearheaded the possession. The first, Shuler, displaying a second-to-none quick shot, was good on a jumper from the free throw line as the shot clock ran down midway through the second half. On the play, he pump-faked his man in the air, stayed controlled and followed though. On the second, he picked up a steal and went coast-to-coast for a layup. He missed a three early in the shot clock on the third trip, but the crowd loved the moxy, and Kennedy didn’t have a problem with it either. Shuler cracked a wry smile after the missed three, looking towards the bench. Kennedy didn’t flinch, only called the defense and moved on. Kennedy allows unprecedented freedom to his guards, and if a guard shows he can make shots, he’ll allow even more, taking the good with the bad. Each game, Shuler is inching closer to a green light similar to that of Stefan Moody and Henderson. It’s understandable. The offense suits him perfectly, and the lesson here is Ole Miss wants Shuler to shoot, shoot and shoot some more. Still, he’s a freshman, and his floor discipline is raw and somewhat unhinged. He plays wild at times, but that’s to be expected. But when he figures it out, he’s going to be impossible to keep off the floor.
3) I think Markel Crawford is going to be the glue that holds Ole Miss together in 2017-18 and I don’t know where the Rebels would be without him. Crawford totaled nine points, nine rebounds, two assists and one steal against Louisiana-Lafayette. On Monday, Crawford scored 10 points on 4 of 7 from the floor. He also had two rebounds and five assists, along with playing his typical relentless defense. But his contributions, and his value, go well-beyond the box score. Yes, he’s Ole Miss’ most consistent perimeter defender as far as doing the most things right; he’ll typically grade out the highest of the Rebels’ impressive collection of guards based on just being in the right place the majority of the time. But it’s his ability to guard 1-4, his skill as a default point guard when in-doubt moments arrive and Kennedy wants to slow the Rebels down, the post-up isolation sets Kennedy runs for him (which shows the creative lengths Kennedy is going to make up for the post production lost with Sebastian Saiz long gone), his leadership as a one-year graduate transfer hungry for the NCAA Tournament and more that makes Crawford irreplaceable. He was the perfect fit at the perfect time, a spring signee who had offers from no shortage of high-major programs across the country. He makes Ole Miss whole. Davis, Tyree, Burnett, et al, will earn the headlines night in and night out. But it’ll be Crawford who earns the most praise when the doors close.
4) I think Tyree doesn’t get enough credit for how good of a facilitator he is. Tyree is off to a slow start offensively through two games (he made just 3 of 8 shots for seven points Monday night) but his five assists tied for the team lead, and he didn’t turn the ball over. Ole Miss trailed only once against Eastern Kentucky, but there were times when the game was close, namely in the first half around the 10-minute mark. Kennedy experimented with rotations in the game, liberally substituting and mixing and matching. Understandable, of course, because the season is young and he’s still trying to figure out how the pieces fit best and who plays well with who. But Ole Miss was in a sloppy stretch. Burnett and Crawford had been running the point, but the results were fruitless possessions, including a forced entry pass from Crawford to Olejniczak that resulted in a turnover. Tyree led Ole Miss down the floor. Three swing passes, an entry attempt and another swing later, he found Burnett, who drove and was fouled. He made both free throws — a stabilizing play with Tyree as the catalyst that moved the score to 25-18. The next series, Tyree again initiated the offense. He first handed off to Shuler. When the ball got back to him after two swings, he quickly dished to Burnett for an open-look three that was good and made for an eight-point lead with 3:17 remaining. Later, at 32-27, Tyree drove the lane, dished to Davis in the corner and Davis didn’t hesitate. With so many options at guard, there are going to be nights when a player has to sacrifice. So far, the player to do so is Tyree. But don’t ever be fooled by his final line. His impact — so long as he’s protecting the ball — is oftentimes immeasurable.
5) I think the last time Ole Miss was above .500 as a program, Dwight Eisenhower was President. Ole Miss moved above .500 as a program for the first time since Jan. 12, 1959 with Monday’s win. The Rebels are now 1,283-1,282, with Kennedy +97 over .500, Rod Barnes +32 and Rob Evans +5.
6) I think Olejniczak is still a work in progress and looking finding himself on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he’s hesitant, and on defense, he’s too often falling victim to active hands. At 7-feet tall, Olejniczak is a natural rim protector, but his game isn’t played above the rim, a la Reginald Buckner. He has to be strong with his hands and quick with his feet, both strong suits if inconsistent for the Drake transfer, though his physicality just isn’t there yet. Teams are doubling him and attacking his hands each time he comes down with a board. Twice Monday night he was forced into turnovers on such plays. But he’s got great tools, and Eastern Kentucky was a step in the right direction. Kennedy continues to run offense for him (he was 3 of 5 for six points), a great example being at 15:49 in the second half and Ole Miss leading 51-40. Burnett ran the point and moved Shuler away from ball side. The Rebels ran a pick action to Crawford, who worked into the lane, handed off to Marcanvis Hymon at the free throw line and drew two men. Olejniczak opened up, took the Hymon pass and dunked. That’s his offense for now. Another example came midway through the second half. Tyree missed a runner in the lane. Olejniczak went over the top of his man, who had position on Olejniczak, secured an offensive rebound and scored on a put-back. He’s going to take some time, but once the physical aspect arrives (remember, he missed a full season due to NCAA transfer rules), says here Olejniczak will take off. As it stands now, he’s not quite active enough, a little too hesitant and not playing freely. Of course, much of that has to do with how guard-reliant Ole Miss is.
7) I think Burnett has Kennedy’s trust more than any other player on the roster. He’s coming off the bench mainly because he’s the most natural fit for the role and he’s willing to sacrifice. There’s no me-first to Burnett, whose role was somewhat in question entering the season but has seemingly been cemented through two games. He’s instant offense and a boost of energy pushing action, and when Ole Miss is looking to milk clock, where one shot is all it’s looking for in a possession, it’s Burnett who has the ball. He was ball dominant the last two possessions in the first half, as well as in the final possessions in the second half. Burnett led Ole Miss with 17 points on 4 of 8 from the floor, 4 of 5 from three and 5 of 6 from the free throw line against Eastern Kentucky.