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Loss of Ruffin to torn ACL leaves hole in Rebels’ collective soul

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In this basketball season of so much medical misfortune, Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis Jr. was hoping — maybe praying some, too — for some rare good news Wednesday.

He got the opposite. 

Freshman point guard Daeshun Ruffin, a Jackson native and most highly recruited player in the university’s basketball history, underwent an MRI to determine the extent of a knee injury suffered Tuesday night at LSU in Baton Rouge. The diagnosis: a torn ACL that will require surgery and a minimum of six months of rehabilitation.

The good news: The explosive Ruffin, clearly one of the quickest, most talented freshmen in all of college basketball, should come back as good as new.

The bad: Ruffin’s absence leaves a hole in the soul of this Ole Miss team that seemed to be turning the corner from SEC mediocrity to becoming a really dangerous basketball team starting to play its best when it begins to matter most.

Rick Cleveland

The 76-72 road victory over No. 25 LSU came on the heels of 67-56 victory over Kansas State and gave the Rebels their third victory in four games — all against formidable competition. It moved the Rebels to 12-10 overall and 3-6 in SEC play heading into a Saturday afternoon game against Florida in Oxford.

For certain, Ruffin had been the catalyst of the Rebels’ significant and recent improvement. He was becoming more sure of himself, adjusting to the rigors of playing point guard in the SEC only a few months after playing high school basketball. And he was doing it despite missing about nearly 11 weeks of practice — and several games — because of previous injuries.

Given the physical woes, Ruffin’s adjustment — from being a shoot-first scorer at the high school level to point guard in the SEC — had been remarkable. He was averaging 12.6 points per game for the season, but nearly 17 a game for the last four. He was cutting down his turnovers, running the offense with more authority. 

His first half performance when Ole Miss sprinted to a 24-point lead on the Tigers was breathtaking at times. Simply put: LSU, one of the most athletic teams in the SEC or anywhere, had nobody who could stay in front of Ruffin. At times, he beat the LSU full-court press by himself. His lightning quick first step made the Tigers seem like statues at times.

Ole Miss has no other guard capable of that. That Ole Miss held on to defeat LSU with Ruffin missing the last 16-plus minutes seems improbable in retrospect. It was a titanic struggle.

“We gutted it out, I’m not sure how,” Davis said Thursday morning. “Daeshun was really playing at a high, high level. I don’t think there’s a faster, quicker player in the country. He was just hitting his stride, just starting to mature. He was starting to do the things a lot of fans might not notice, like his on-ball defense and how to play ball screens”

Davis paused.

“And here’s the thing that’s hard to explain,” he continued. “He was learning on the run. Because of all the previous injuries, he really didn’t have the opportunity to prepare for what he was getting into. In this league, he was learning on the run against some of the best guards in the country. The guards in this league are just phenomenal. He had so much on his plate and he was just really coming into his own.”

And with him, seemingly, so was the Ole Miss team, which lost senior forward Robert Allen to injury early, and had been without the team’s leading scorer Jarkel Joiner since Dec. 21. Joiner, who has missed 10 games with a back injury, is expected back for the Florida game.

“I was really looking forward to having Jarkel and Daeshun together for the stretch run,” Davis said.

Instead, Joiner must play a much different role from here on out. Often, he’ll need to handle the ball, run the offense in Ruffin’s absence. And he must do so coming off a painful back injury.

Expect remaining Ole Miss opponents, including Florida, to press the Rebels all over the floor, knowing Ole Miss doesn’t have a true point guard available.

Frankly, the outlook is none too bright. None of the rest of the schedule — which includes the likes of Alabama, Auburn and Kentucky, among others — will be easy.

Neither will Ruffin’s rehab.

“I know this about Daeshun,” Davis said. “I know how competitive he is. I now how strong the support system from his family will be. I know how hard he will work. He’ll be back, better than ever.”

But that’s next season. It is left to his teammates to make something of this one. That’s going to be a chore, perhaps an unachievable one.

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