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Scouting Report: Ole Miss Rebels

Scouting Report: Ole Miss Rebels

(Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports)

The Cats are fresh off a bludgeoning delivered by Tennessee and they’ll be heading out on the road for the final time this season. Awaiting them is a team that should be NCAA Tournament bound and could potentially be UK’s Friday opponent next week at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

Under first year head coach Kermit Davis, the Rebels have easily exceeded expectations. Ole Miss is set to record a 20-win season and just their ninth NCAA Tournament bid in program history. The guard oriented lineup will present some unique challenges for a Kentucky team that will likely be playing without Reid Travis for the fourth consecutive game.

Nuts and Bolts

Kermit Davis played point guard at Mississippi State in the early 80s before getting his start in coaching. After a successful run at Idaho that included 50 wins and two NCAA Tournament appearances, Davis would take a job at Texas A&M. There he found himself in some hot water.

After going just 8-21 in his first season there in 1990-1991, Davis got caught committing rules violations that placed the Aggies on probation for two seasons and gave Davis a two-year show cause. Davis would have a long rocky road to become a head coach at a power conference school.

After a short run in junior college, Davis was an assistant at Utah State before taking the Idaho head coaching job for one season. From Moscow he took an assistant role at LSU to work under John Brady from 1997-2002. From there he would be hired to run the program at Middle Tennessee.

Davis would spend 16 seasons in Murfreesboro. There he collected 332 wins, 5 conference titles, and 3 NCAA Tournament bids. At the age of 58 he would finally get the chance to run a power conference program.

After a 12-year stint by Andy Kennedy in Oxford that recorded 245 wins, 2 NCAA Tournament appearances, and an SEC Tournament title it was time for a change. Athletic director Ross Bjork decided to bring Kermit Davis back to The Magnolia State. So far it’s looking like an excellent decision.

The seasoned head coach has invigorated this program and had the Rebels in the top 25 for two weeks in January. Ole Miss is set to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after the media picked them to finish in last place in the conference during the preseason. You could easily make the case that Davis deserves to be the SEC coach of the year.

Under Davis, the Rebels a have a perimeter oriented offense. Ole Miss wants to spread the court and attack opposing defenses with multiple ball screen actions. They thrive off the dribble drive and have two guards who really make stuff happen off the bounce. On the other end, the Rebels primarily play man but Davis loves to use a 1-3-1 zone. They put length up top and then look for traps on the sidelines. This will be a defense UK has not seen since Louisville ran it back in December.

Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 5-point favorite with a total of 140.5. That’s a projected final score around 73-68. The Wildcats are 15-13-1 against the spread while the Rebels are a very robust 21-8. Ole Miss has been one of the biggest overachievers this season and that was present in their 14-1 record against the number to start the season. In their last eight games, the under is 7-1 when Ole Miss takes the floor. In their last nine games, the under is 8-1 when Kentucky takes the floor. 

Backcourt Breakdown

Kermit Davis inherited a nice one-two punch on the perimeter from Andy Kennedy and the two upperclassmen guards have been very, very good for the Rebels this season. Ole Miss doesn’t have much size, but they make up for it with a nice blend of playmaking and shot making ability.

After putting up 10.8 points per game on a 39.4 percent shooting clip, Breein Tyree’s efficiency has taken a large step forward in the new system. The junior combo guard from New Jersey leads the Rebs in scoring at 18.5 points per game and is shooting over 48 percent from the field.

The 6-foot-2 guard has made 64 threes on a 40 percent shooting clip in addition to getting to the line 137 times. He’s a score first point guard.

Joining Tyree in the back is senior Terence Davis who has some crazy athleticism in a 6-foot-4 frame.

The headband wearing combo guard led the team in scoring last season and has also seen his offensive inefficiency improve under Kermit Davis. The Southaven, Mississippi native is putting up 15.5 points per game and is shooting 37.8 percent from three on a high volume of attempts. He’s the team’s top assist man, leads the squad in rebounds, and is very solid on the defensive end.

The third starter in the backcourt is sophomore Devontate Shuler who is a combo guard just like Davis and Tyree. The South Carolina native is shooting over 38 percent from three and is averaging just under 10 points per game.

All three of these players play over 3o minutes per game and in a lot of ways are interchangeable. Each can run the offense or step away from the ball and play as a spot up shooter. They can all make plays off the bounce and Ole Miss will constantly be putting them in ball screen actions. This is an offense that thrives off of the dribble drive and their guards making things happen.

Frontcourt Breakdown

Ole Miss plays four players in the frontcourt for at least 19 minutes per game and each one plays an important role. Kermit Davis asks his bigs to do a lot of dirty work, but each of the pieces is given some freedom on offense. In this group, the Rebels have two freshmen who are going to have the chance to be excellent college basketball players.

Blake Hinson was a top-150 recruit in the class of 2018 and the Florida native has started 27 of 28 games for the Rebels. The 6-foot-7 wing plays mainly at the four for Ole Miss and he provides a perimeter shooting element. Fellow freshman KJ Buffen comes off the bench and the Georgia native plays an important defensive role. The 6-foot-7 forward has great length and he is excellent as the team’s top defender in their 1-3-1 zone.

At the five spot, senior Bruce Stevens starts for the Rebels and the former junior college player can also step away from the basket and has great size (6-foot-8, 252 pounds) to battle in the paint. Dominik Olejniczak comes off the bench for the Rebs and the 7-footer from Poland is very limited offensively. The five-man has had a lot of trouble in guarding without fouling.

Rebounding has been a major weakness  for this group with the four frontcourt players averaging a combined 14.7 boards per game. That, obviously, is not good and should be something UK can take advantage of.

Keys to Victory

  • Fresh off the humbling loss to Tennessee in Knoxville, the Wildcats are back on the road facing another challenge. Against an Ole Miss squad that doesn’t have much size on the interior this appears to be a good matchup for UK to get right. The Rebels are one of the worst rebounding teams in the conference on both sides of the floor while UK is one of the league’s best. UK’s size inside and ability to get paint points should be a big advantage for the Wildcats.
  • After a really down game, Kentucky needs a bounce back performance from Ashton Hagans. The freshman guard is facing another tough challenge against a talented trio of combo guards. Kentucky needs Hagans to snap out of this funk that he’s in and make aggressive plays on offense. Against a similar opponent in Auburn, Hagans played two of his better games of the season.
  • Kentucky has not seen a 1-3-1 zone since the road win in Louisville, but tonight they’re going to get a heavy dose of it. Against the zone, UK will need to attack the gaps and take advantage of the corner jumpers they will get. Good passes will be key and it’s a great opportunity for Nick Richards. The 1-3-1 wants you to throw lobs and the big sophomore could have a career day if UK is able to execute. Ole Miss also has the worst three-point shooting defense in the SEC and some of this has to do with the open looks they’re willing to give up in the zone.

Dance Blue Raises $1,880,954.88 For the Kids

Easily the best thing the University of Kentucky does is their annual dance marathon to raise money for UK children’s hospital, Dance Blue. This year was the 14th year of Dance Blue and each year is better than the last. With the end of marathon donation total increasing every year, this year was no different. This year, Dance Blue raised $1,880,954.88 FOR THE KIDS!!!! The total has now reached over 15 million dollars in 14 years.

As someone who has had a family member involved in the Children’s clinic at UK, this event is truly astonishing and proves how much these students really care about the health of our future, along with the kids themselves.

At Dance Blue, UK students are on their feet 24 hours dancing for one cause, and that’s to help raise money for the UK children’s hematology/oncology and all the proceeds to help children fighting cancer. It helped to build the current facility they’re in and the state of the art equipment for the future.

On Saturday night, the marathon is primarily for the students to get acquainted with the line dance they do at the top of every hour. Some years some of the athletes, mascots, or coaches will join the students in the marathon. On Sunday, Dance Blue invites the families who have helped with Dance Blue or has had Dance Blue help them to come watch the event along with the children’s talent show, the celebration of life hour, and of course the big reveal.  It’s truly a great event.

Madison Little, a student at Kentucky, participated for her second time this year. According to little, she found great purpose in participating in the 24-hour Marathon. “During the marathon last year I had been scanning my mind on what I can do to help,” Little told KSR. “During the memorial video last year, I had tears streaming down my face, seeing all these families being affected by pediatric cancer. Seeing these random faces on the screen, up popped a familiar face. Seeing someone who had passed away that I was close to, hit close to home and it made me want to do it again. If these children can go through what they do day-to-day, I can totally do this for 24 hours.”

Little said she recommends participating to all UK students and she will undoubtedly be participating in the next two years.

One of the founders of Dance Blue, Jennifer Mynear, said Dance Blue had changed the landscape of UK in itself. “Initially the impact of Dance Blue was we were told at one point by one of the university administrators and told the students ‘you have changed the culture of philanthropy at UK,’” said Mynear. ” It has changed the heart of UK. The students who participate every year, give everything and not just dollars, but their hearts, their time and their love.”

Mynear continued with her high praise for the insane amount of students who contribute to Dance Blue. “They have completely transformed pediatric hematology-oncology care here at UK children’s hospital. They have changed; literally, I don’t use this lightly, the level of care. We went from being a good small pediatric oncology, to top five in the country. That’s all the students.”

To the students at UK, job well done. It’s a fantastic event that I hope to see continue every year until we finally find the cure! Thank you to the donors, the students, the staff, and the doctors. You have truly changed lives.

UK Spring Ball 2019 is all about Secondary and Wide Receiver Development

Following a historic 2018 season, the 2019 UK football squad will be taking the practice fields for the first time this week for the seventh spring session under Mark Stoops. The Wildcats must replace a lot of star power of last year’s club, but the current roster remains mostly balanced. However, there are a few spots that will be worth keeping a close eye on during the spring session. Add that in with a new defensive coordinator and there are plenty of things to follow entering a favorable schedule that includes eight games at Kroger Field.

When the depth chart is released the tomorrow, the first place everyone’s eyes should look is the defensive back and wide receiver spots. Outside of Davonte Robinson on defense and Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps on offense, the Wildcats have no proven upperclassmen on the roster. On the offensive side, the Wildcats will be breaking in a ton of young faces while the secondary will need two junior college transfers to take control of the outside corner spots. These two position groups will be the main focus of the offseason.

Who plays with Davonte Robinson?

Last season the Wildcats had one of the best secondaries in college football. Behind three senior starters and another senior corner that played a lot of snaps off the bench, the Wildcats had the 19th best pass defense in the country per S&P+. UK appeared to have no weaknesses on the backend to go along with a lot of length that proved to be matchup nightmares for opposing wide receivers.

This year the Wildcats, under newly promoted defensive coordinator Brad White, will have a proven front seven that has a chance to be in the top half of the SEC. If the defense is able to keep up the excellent play it will be because of the development in the secondary.

Davonte Robinson was the only returning player who received a ton of playing time in the secondary last season. The safety will enter his redshirt junior season as a starter and is very likely to be the team’s nickel corner on subpackages. The Henry Clay alum recorded 42 tackles last season to go along with four pass break-ups. He’ll be the star of the unit.

Around Robinson is where cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale and safety coach Dean Hood will need to find some answers. Let’s start with the safety position next to Robinson.

Last year, UK used two redshirt freshmen in a limited role at safety. Both Tyrell Ajian and Yusuf Corker were top-350 recruits in the class of 2017. They’ll be competing for the starting spot at free safety to replace Darius West. The duo combined for just 18 tackles last season. Ajian recorded three pass break-ups and an interception in the upset victory over Mississippi State. One to watch for will be true freshman Moses Douglass. The blue-chip recruit has enrolled early and he’ll have a great chance for playing time at either safety spot.

At corner, Kentucky is totally rebuilding. The Wildcats lost years of starting experience with Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson, and Chris Westry all moving on to the NFL. To help stem the tide, Mark Stoops and his staff brought in two junior college transfers to help ease the transition in 2019.

UK landed Brandin Echols from Northwest Mississippi Community College and the three-star prospect recorded six interceptions and 12 pass break-ups last season. At 6-foot tall and 180 pounds, he seems to be a likely candidate to replace Derrick Baity at UK’s field corner (wide side of the field) spot.

On the early signing day in December, Kentucky picked up a surprising commitment and signature from junior college defensive back Quandre Mosely. The Georgia native has some great size (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and what seems like some great length on his highlight tape. The Eastern Arizona Community College product figures to play UK’s boundary corner spot (weak side of the field) which Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry owned last season. Mosely recorded over 50 tackles last year playing safety, but it feels like UK likes him better at corner.

The Wildcats also have a ton of young players who could break into the rotation. Both Jamari Brown and Stanley Garner redshirted last season. Garner was one of the most heralded recruits in the 2018 class. After playing primarily in a special teams role his true freshman season, Cedrick Dort Jr. also took a redshirt last year. There have also been rumors that slot receiver Clevan Thomas, Jr. has switched to the defensive side of the ball. The redshirt sophomore has the size (5-foot-11, 207 pounds) of a safety/slot corner.

A wildcard to watch in this entire race is senior Jordan Griffin. The former top-400 recruit out of Jonesboro High School in Georgia has had a strange career. Griffin has played every spot in the secondary, but still has been unable to find a permanent home. The seasoned veteran has 41 career tackles and could be used as a filler to play any spot that the staff feels they need help in.

If you’re looking for a freshman to make an impact, keep an eye on rookie Taj Dodson. The top-600 recruit played mainly safety in high school, but it appears that UK will be letting him try out corner. The early enrollee has a chance to get early playing time due to the current state of the position. If he plays well this spring, he could take on a career trajectory similar to Derrick Baity. Playing a little bit as a freshman before becoming a sophomore starter and an impact player as an upperclassmen.

Finding Contributors at Wideout

Kentucky enters the season with one proven playmaker at wide receiver. Everyone reading this knows what Lynn Bowden, Jr. can do on the football field. The spring is not going to be about him. It’s going to be about finding alternative answers.

The Wildcats lost four of their top five pass catchers from last season and it is clear that quarterback Terry Wilson needs some help. Kentucky returns two juniors in Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps. It’s time for both players to take a step forward and become an impact player. If neither is able to it could be time to turn to an underclassmen.

It’s a vital spring for senior Ahmad Wagner following a transition year to college football. The former Iowa hooper did some positive things on the field, but it’s pretty clear he has a long way to go to make an impact. Hearing how he develops over the 15 practices will likely say a lot about what the expectations should be for him this fall.

As fas as the youngsters go, Kentucky has a lot of options. Allen Dailey, Jr. played primarily in a special teams role last year, but he was the only freshman that did not redshirt. B.J. Alexander and Bryce Oliver, along with Dailey, will all be thrown into the mix and given playing time looks. True freshman Demarcus Harris is in for the spring. Each one of these players is going to get a long, hard look at playing time.

Michael Smith is entering his second season coaching the wideouts at Kentucky and the Kansas State alum has his work cut out for him. The UK offense desperately needs this group outside of Bowden to make a big stride forward this upcoming year for the offense to reach its potential.

What about Terry?

After starting 13 games and collecting 10 wins, Terry Wilson is back behind center for his junior season and most are expecting improved play from the dual-threat quarterback. After completing 67.2 percent of his passes and averaging a respectable 7.0 yards per attempt, Kentucky needs Wilson to go from game manager to playmaker in 2019.

The athletic quarterback was effective on the ground (over 700 rushing yards on non-sack carries) in addition to being very accurate. The only problem was that the young quarterback took way too many sacks which took away from his rushing effectiveness in addition to the lion’s share of his passes not traveling very far past the line of scrimmage.

In 2019, Wilson must grow in a lot of areas. In the pocket, the young quarterback needs to improve his footwork and short area mobility to extend plays. In the passing game, he must start to build a rapport with the young receivers. Outside of Bowden, Wilson will have no safety blanket with the loss of C.J. Conrad. How Wilson plays with the young receivers will say a lot about who will receive playing time when Toledo rolls into town on the last Saturday in August.

In all, Kentucky has some very strong things to lean on entering the spring. The offensive line has a chance to be very good and Mark Stoops should feel very confident in his defensive front seven. There are a few things that need to be ironed out, but the program is in good shape if they can answer a couple of big questions this spring.