It’s not exciting, but that doesn’t mean Kermit Davis at Ole Miss won’t work
Published 9:48 am Thursday, March 15, 2018
Kermit Davis it is.
After weeks of heavy speculation and various reports linking him to the job, Ole Miss made it official Thursday by tabbing Davis to replace Andy Kennedy as the Rebels’ basketball coach. And nothing about athletic director Ross Bjork’s choice is surprising.
Davis, a Mississippi native who played and got his coaching start at Mississippi State, was always going to get a hard look from Ole Miss given his ties to the state and the job he did in doing more with less the last 16 years at Middle Tennessee State, where Davis turned the Blue Raiders into one of the nation’s premier mid-major programs. Davis won 64 percent of his games in Murfreesboro and led MTSU to three NCAA Tournaments.
Still, let’s go ahead and get this out the way: This isn’t an exciting hire for a fan base that grew apathetic this season given the Rebels’ last-place showing in the SEC. Not when Ole Miss initially dreamed big but either missed out (former Ohio State coach Thad Matta) or passed on (former Indiana coach Tom Crean) other high-profile names.
It’s a risk on Bjork’s part for a couple of reasons.
For starters, it feels like Bjork replaced Kennedy with another version of Ole Miss’ former coach on the recruiting trail. Much like Kennedy did during his 12-year tenure, Davis relied heavily on junior college and graduate transfers to build his rosters at MTSU. The Blue Raiders have six transfers on their roster this season with three of them in MTSU’s starting five, including Conference USA Player of the Year and former Memphis signee Nick King.
Circumstances are different at a mid-major program, and maybe Davis felt that kind of assembly was MTSU’s best chance to reach the NCAA Tournament in a one-bid league every year. Transfers are prevalent at every level of the game, and it’s a market Ole Miss will have to stay in to some extent given its low position on the Nike totem pole. But is Davis married to that recruiting philosophy? Or can he use his local ties and new facilities to sign and develop more high school players in order to avoid constant turnover in a conference where more high-profile coaches are bringing in more elite talent?
Davis is going to have to win before this starts feeling different for fans, which is where the financial part comes into play. Sure, Ole Miss has money, but the Rebels don’t have much of a booster commitment in basketball while playing in a $96.5-million arena that was half-empty by the time they took the floor against Vanderbilt for Senior Night earlier this month.
Should the school fail in its appeal of next year’s bowl ban in football, that’s roughly $16 million in postseason revenue Ole Miss will miss out on in two seasons. Ole Miss is also honoring the rest of Kennedy’s contract, which will amount to an expense in the millions over the next two years. There’s also a $570,000 buyout the school will pay former women’s coach Matt Insell.
Ole Miss needs to sell more season tickets (the school was last in the SEC in attendance this season), and a proven winner at the sport’s highest level such as Matta or Crean would’ve instantly done that. A more wait-and-see approach will likely be taken with Davis, who coached for 10 years at MTSU before reaching the NCAA Tournament with the Blue Raiders for the first time in 2014 (it took Kennedy seven seasons to break through at Ole Miss).
There’s also some chatter about Davis’ age, which I think is wasted breath. Davis is 58, which isn’t young for a basketball coach but isn’t all that old either. Five coaches in the SEC are either in that range or older, including John Calipari (59), Bruce Pearl (57), Ben Howland (60) and the league’s oldest coach, Rick Barnes (63), who, by the way, just led Tennessee to a share of the SEC regular-season championship along with Pearl’s Auburn squad.
Davis shares his age with Arkansas’ Mike Anderson, who just led the Razorbacks to their third NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons, so they’re all doing fine. Davis doesn’t have any health issues (at least nothing publicly anyway), and I doubt Bjork would’ve pulled the trigger if there was anything there he thought might cut into Davis’ longevity at this point of his career.
But even the justifiable concerns don’t mean this won’t work. Given that Davis has yet to recruit one player for Ole Miss and is months away from coaching his first practice or game in Oxford, it would be ridiculous to start putting this hire in any type of category.
Bjork has made it clear the expectation going forward is to win enough to make more frequent trips to the NCAA Tournament, and Davis has consistently done that in recent years.
Davis had just one more NCAA appearance at MTSU than Kennedy did at Ole Miss in a tenure that lasted four years longer than Kennedy’s, but all of them have come in the last six years in a league where it’s essentially conference tournament title or bust. The Blue Raiders have won at least 24 games for the sixth time in the last seven seasons and captured their second straight Conference USA regular-season championship but were relegated to the NIT after being upset by Southern Miss in the C-USA tournament quarterfinals.
MTSU did damage once they got to the Big Dance under Davis, pulling off some of the tournament’s biggest upsets. College basketball fans won’t soon forget the 15th-seeded Blue Raiders’ shocker over No. 2 seed Michigan State in 2016. MTSU followed that up last year with a 12-5 upset of Minnesota.
Ole Miss fans are as familiar as any with MTSU’s knack for beating the big boys under Davis’ watch. MTSU is 7-1 in its last eight games against SEC and Big Ten competition, which includes wins over the Rebels each of the last two seasons.
It may look rough early on depending on exactly how much turnover there is on a roster that’s already losing four seniors, including leading scorer Deandre Burnett. Terence Davis, Breein Tyree, Devontae Shuler, Bruce Stevens and Dominik Olejniczak all have at least one year of eligibility left, but expecting all of them to stick around following a coaching change isn’t realistic. The Rebels’ top-ranked signee, Florida prep guard Serrel Smith, has already asked to be released from his scholarship, and there are three more signees that have to decide what they want to do.
Whatever your initial thought is about the hire, just know Matta wasn’t going to provide a quick fix. Neither was Crean or anybody else that might’ve seriously been considered for the job. That doesn’t exist at one of the more difficult Power Five jobs in the country without the NCAA eventually showing up on your doorstep.
But Davis has his shot with more resources than any Ole Miss basketball coach has ever been afforded. His recruiting approach — whatever that looks like for him and the staff he assembles at this level — and defensive-minded coaching philosophy may prove to be an upgrade over Kennedy. It may not.
As difficult as it is for a program and a fan base starving to be a more consistent part of the tournament conversation this time of the year to hear, Ole Miss needs to practice patience.
Because who knows? Davis just might end up rewarding them for it.
Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer for the EAGLE. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.