2016-2017 SEC basketball preview: Ole Miss Rebels

After a season of overachieving, many believe Ole Miss will reside near the bottom of the SEC this season. Will that come true, or will the Rebels prove the doubters wrong again?

KNOXVILLE,TN - MARCH 05, 2016 - Guard Shembari Phillips #25 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

Last season, Andy Kennedy led the Ole Miss men’s basketball team to a 20-12 overall record and 10-8 in SEC play. The team was picked to finish ninth, but performed better than expected and finished the season tied for sixth in SEC. The Rebels fell just short of the NIT tournament, largely because of a lackluster performance in the SEC tournament.

However, it will be difficult for Ole Miss to replicate that success this season. SEC media picked the Rebels to finish ninth again, and even though they have proven the media wrong in the past, there are many question marks surrounding the team.

Strengths

Last season, Ole Miss had the top scorer in the SEC in Stefan Moody, who averaged 23.6 points a game. Replacing him will be a tough task for the Rebels, but Kennedy believes he can. He snagged seven scholarship players in the program’s incoming recruiting class. However, the team won’t have to rely too heavily on freshmen, as there are several returning players.

Leading the charge on the backboards will be senior forward Sebastian Saiz, who averaged 11.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game last season. The 6-foot-9-inch forward from Spain enters his senior season with 599 career rebounds and is the second leading returner in rebounds in the SEC.

Leading the offense alongside Saiz will be senior guard Rasheed Brooks. Last season, Brooks averaged 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds. He finished third on the team in assists with 1.6 per game and fourth on the team in scoring.

With the development of Marcanvis Hymon, Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey and Terence Davis, Ole Miss will have solid players with experience to teach the incoming recruiting class. Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett — both transfer players — will provide extra experience to the younger freshman like Nate Morris and Breein Tyree.

Weaknesses

Even though the offense was fast paced, the Rebels didn’t live up to their potential. The offense was able to put up 75.2 points a game, but they were only able to shoot 41.6 percent from the field. Turnovers were also a key factor for opposing teams, as they forced Ole Miss to turn the ball over 12.1 times per game.

Ole Miss’ defense underperformed as much as the offense. The Rebels were towards the bottom of the SEC in blocks at 3.1 per game and 100 total. The defense allowed opponents to shoot 42.8 percent from the field, 35.5 percent from behind the three-point line and score 72.1 points per game.

The other big weakness for this team is experience. Even though they return many upperclassmen, only three players on the entire roster averaged at least 12 minutes a game a season ago. The biggest loss for the team was Stefan Moody, and there’s a good chance the Rebels won’t be able to replace him effectively.

Players to watch

G Cullen Neal, RS Jr. — After graduating early from New Mexico, Neal decided to transfer to Ole Miss. He led the team in assists at 3.7 per game, averaged 2.8 rebounds per game, 0.8 steals per game and finished third on the team in scoring at 12.3 points per game. Alongside Saiz, Neal should help improve the team’s defense.

G Deandre Burnett, RS Jr. — Another transfer player, Burnett sat out the 2015-2016 season after coming into the program from Miami. While with the Hurricanes, he averaged seven points per game, two rebounds per game, 0.8 assists per game and 0.5 steals per game. With a year of sitting out to learn the scheme, Burnett should provide an upgrade to the Rebels’ offense.

Sebastian Saiz, Sr. — With Moody and others gone, Saiz is the clear leader of the team. He has the most experience on the team and is one of the best returning rebounders in the SEC. He finished second on the team last season in scoring, blocked shots and field goal percentage and he should be the biggest x-factor for the Rebels this season.

Matchups to Watch

Dec. 11 @ Virginia Tech — This game will be one of the first true road tests for the Rebels. The Hokies were able to start and finish strong and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. If Ole Miss can find a way to win this game, it would be off to a good start to the season.

Jan. 28 vs Baylor — The Bears were a very solid team last season going into the NCAA tournament and should be again this year. This game comes directly in the middle of SEC play and it will be a good test for the Rebels at home.

South Carolina — Last season, in the one matchup against each other, the Rebels took one of the best teams in the SEC to overtime before the Gamecocks were able to come out on top. This season, Ole Miss will have two chances to show they’re better than expected against one of the better teams in the SEC. The Rebels will travel to Columbia on Jan. 14 and in their regular-season finale will host the Gamecocks on March 4.

Prediction

The loss of Stefan Moody will hurt the Rebels greatly. However, Ole Miss should be able defy the odds in Andy Kennedy’s 11th season. Although they are projected ninth in the SEC, the team should be able complete a few upsets and prove the media wrong. They’ll finish seventh in the conference, but fall just short of a bid to the NIT tournament.

Edited by Adam Milliken

Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics