December 5, 2020

University of Mississippi’s hoop dreams ahead of schedule in Davis’ first year

The energy in Kermit Davis’ eyes was palpable.

Sitting in Davis’ office just days before Auburn, a team his Ole Miss squad beat twice, will play in the Final Four, Davis says it doesn’t hurt watching the Tigers in Minneapolis. Instead, he’s excited because he “really likes Bruce Pearl a lot.” He’s not mulling the loss of senior Terence Davis as much as he is excited for the future of redshirt freshman Carlos Curry. Davis isn’t upset about the way Ole Miss’ season ended – he’s optimistic about the foundation they built in his first year.

Ole Miss’ 2017-18 basketball season didn’t live up to expectations, losing 11 of 12 down the stretch leading to the demise of the Andy Kennedy era of Rebel hoops. But simply put, Kermit Davis exceeded expectations in 2018-19, a culmination of efforts dating back over a year since the coach first stepped foot in Oxford as the newly appointed Rebel basketball coach.

Kennedy stepping down mid-February gave Ole Miss and the Vice Chancellor of Intercollegiate Athletics, Ross Bjork, a chance to get out early on the landscape of the coaching search.

Knowing they weren’t recruiting at the level of a Kentucky or Duke, Bjork said the goal during the search was always to find the best basketball coach – they guy that can get the most out of what they had. Talking to basketball minds from across the country, it was Kermit Davis’ name that kept coming up.

“I was fine at Middle (Tennessee). They were going to give me a lifetime type deal and I was great with that,” Davis said. But the first time I met with Ross and Keith (Carter), it just felt right on my end. It’s been everything I thought it would be.”

Davis was comfortable at MTSU because of the track record. He made the NCAA Tournament two of the prior three years, knocking off Michigan State as a 15-seed back in 2016. For Davis, it was Ole Miss’ commitment to basketball and the challenge of winning at the highest level that lured him away from the Blue Raiders.

Come August, Ole Miss brought in a few fresh faces, namely K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson, but for the most part, it was a core group that finished 12-20 and last in the conference coming back for Davis. Outside of the Tuohy Basketball Center, outside of Oxford, outside of Mississippi, expectations were low for the Rebel team that would be picked to finish last in the SEC in the 2018-19 year.

“Outside of our program, there was no expectations whatsoever,” Bjork said. “We’re not surprised. Look, we finished last the year before, so there’s not external expectations”

Internally, there were no expectations either. Bjork knew it was a program capable of being in the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis, but for year one he simply challenged Davis to be competitive. For Davis, the message was similar, being competitive in conference and showing signs of growth.

Neither imagined both would happen so fast.

When asked separately when they first noticed Kermit Davis’ plan coming alive, both Davis and Ross had the same answer – a Nov. 16 losson the road at Butler. Ole Miss led Butler 68-63 with 5:50 to play before losing 83-76. However, it was the signs of growth, on the road, against a perennially good mid-major in Butler, that opened their eyes.

“You left (Indianapolis) thinking, we have a chance here. We thought butler was going to have a really good year even though they struggled there at the end,” Davis said. “But it was the Auburn game here that you really knew. We had played well against some other teams, but when you beat a ranked team at home and win pretty handily, that’s when I thought this team sure could play in the NCAA Tournament.”

While the November game in Indianapolis raised eyebrows within the program, it wasn’t until early January when Ole Miss hit the national notice. The Rebels beat No. 11 Auburn by 15 points at home, then traveled to Starkville to beat Mississippi State just three days later. They would experience some up and downs following the win over the Bulldogs, before their biggest win of the year, going to Auburn to complete the sweep of the Tigers on Feb. 13.

“(Auburn at home) is when you put it on the radar. When you’re watching all the college basketball shows, your logo is in the background. And then the NET rankings come into play and we’re in the 30s all down the stretch,” Bjork said. “And then the game atAuburn, winning that game was big. To me, that’s when it became real… nationally, the message was just that Kermit outcoached Bruce Pearl.”

The season didn’t end by living up to the expectations set by that mid-SEC run. Rebel fans left both the SEC and NCAA Tournament upset and let down. But here’s the kicker: how can you be let down by a team picked to finish last in the conference that makes the NCAA Tournament?

Ole Miss wasn’t even supposed to be in Columbia, S.C. the day they got blown out by the Sooners in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Being able to be let down by this team is a success in their eyes.

“It’s too bad because the last three halves we played were probably the worst three halves. It just was, and I hated that,” Davis said. “It really shows how much you really need depth in this league. I think mentally, we wore down a little bit.”

Ahead of schedule. Ole Miss is ahead of schedule. That was the message from Davis the afternoon following the Oklahoma loss in Columbia and the message when sitting down with him in Bjork’s office a few weeks after.

The Rebels are still working to build their culture, something Davis said will take some time. A lot of that starts with setting the pace of practice and getting consistent effort every day. Davis would harp throughout the season – especially in the team’s bad games – that he had to coach effort. When his culture is fully integrated, that won’t be an issue.

Being ahead of schedule also plays over on the recruiting front. Building and finding quality depth was a point of emphasis for both Bjork and Davis entering the offseason. For Davis, a big part of that will be finding quality rim protection as well as developing maturity and the toughness he wants in his teams.

“It’s really just continuing to build. Continuing to build the roster with more depth,” Davis said. “One of the things that was a challenge this year, and I think that affected us down the stretch, was just that we’re a thin roster. So, building a deeper rotation.”

Ole Miss has already signed four players, including three, three-star recruits, for their 2019 class and are very much in play for four-star guard Austin Crowley. They’ll also get Carlos Curry, a big man Davis is excited about, who redshirted this past year. But building the depth Davis wants will take time.

Expectations have been reset in Oxford. Being ahead of schedule means fans will expect more from Davis in year two. But as he said, all you want as a coach is to be somewhere where expectations are high. The way things ended may lead some to forget how great a success this season was for the Rebel basketball program, but compared to where they were just one year ago, it’s truly been a remarkable turnaround.

“I know we didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but I think in a lot of ways it’s one of the stories in college basketball. We’re probably not going to get that billing because of the way the tournament’s playing out,” Bjork said. “But if you look at the totality of picked last, the same nucleus coming off of 12 wins. To do what we did, to show the progress. Coach (Davis’) peers picked him coach of the year for a reason. They saw it. I really believe that it’s one of the stories in college basketball this year.”