Preseason media polls can be a great motivator.
Just ask Frank Martin and the South Carolina Gamecocks, who turned a 25-win season in 2016 (picked seventh in the SEC in preseason) into their first Final Four appearance in 2017 (picked eighth in the SEC in preseason).
You could also ask the Auburn Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers. Bruce Pearl’s team was picked to finish ninth last season, while Grant Williams and company were picked 13th. The result? Both teams shared the co-regular season title.
Now it appears the Ole Miss Rebels are trying to keep the tradition going by taking things a step further.
The Rebels are off to a 12-2 start in Kermit Davis’ first season, and the most impressive part of that record has come in the team’s first two conference games.
Ole Miss started SEC play with a 10-point road win at Vanderbilt, then followed it up with a convincing 15-point victory over No. 11 Auburn.
Two games in, the Rebels aren’t a team that anyone wants to play. But, perhaps that makes sense for a team that was widely projected to finish in the upper tier in the SEC.
Except that Ole Miss was predicted to finish last. The cellar dweller, ol’ No. 14, etc.
However, not many people could blame the media for picking the Rebels in that spot. It was the easiest choice considering that the program finished in that exact spot after a 12-win season a year ago. And, when you tie in the fact that Ole Miss entered the season with a new coaching staff and a host of weaknesses to improve upon, picking this team last made a lot of sense.
But the reason we love college basketball is that things don’t always make sense.
After struggling with consistency at times last season, the backcourt trio of Breein Tyree, Terence Davis, and Devontae Shuler have been a reliable foundation for the new staff to build upon. Dominik Olejniczak and Bruce Stevens are providing good minutes in the frontcourt, while newcomers Blake Hinson and K.J. Buffen have emerged as key members of the rotation.
Offensively, Ole Miss has featured one of the nation’s most efficient offensive attacks, ranking ninth nationally in effective field-goal percentage while being just outside the top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
There’s also been a dramatic improvement on defense. That was a top priority for Davis and his staff in the summer, and it’s clear that hard work is paying off right now.
The Rebels have struggled on that side of the court in recent years, but this season, are allowing just 66.5 points per game (65th nationally). There’s still room to grow, but it’s undoubtedly been one of the biggest reasons for the surprising start.
When you add that type of improvement to a team that’s playing with incredible toughness and competitiveness on both sides of the court, you’ve got a group that has easily outplayed preseason ranking.
That’s the thing about preseason polls – you can only go by what you see on paper. What you don’t see is the daily development in practice, the players’ growing chemistry with a new staff, and other significant intangibles that don’t show up on stat sheets or recaps from previous seasons.
And it’s not as though Ole Miss basketball was a perennial doormat. If anything, it’s been one of the most underrated programs in the SEC for years now due to what Andy Kennedy helped build during his tenure in Oxford.
Nationally, he never got the credit he deserved due to the lack of NCAA Tournament success. Regionally, anyone who follows SEC basketball closely will tell you that the Ole Miss program looks nothing like it did when Kennedy took over in 2006.
The facilities are better, the school’s commitment to basketball is better, and overall, it’s an excellent foundation for Davis to work with as he attempts to take the program to another level.
Of course, it’s a long season. The Rebels could still finish last, and after missing wildly on certain teams in previous years, it would be a much-needed victory for the SEC preseason media poll.
Worst to first? Maybe, maybe not.
Either way, don’t underestimate the motivational power that has seemingly come along with the SEC preseason poll in recent years.
It worked for South Carolina. It worked for Auburn. It worked for Tennessee.
And it may just work for an Ole Miss program that’s already exceeding expectations in year one of the Davis era.
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