College basketball: Kermit Davis thrilled to be back in SEC, eager to turn Ole Miss into a ‘national brand'
Kermit Davis was comfortable. He had no reason to leave Middle Tennessee State.
He was winning, even if the Blue Raiders weren’t a given to get into the NCAA tournament, as was the case last season when they got beat in the Conference USA tournament.
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“I was very comfortable,’’ said Davis, who added he would have countless conversations with Belmont’s Rick Byrd about staying put rather than chasing a higher-profile, multiple-bid league job. “My daughter had a great quality of life. And when the Ole Miss job came open, (Ole Miss AD) Ross Bjork addressed it early.’’
Bjork’s concern won over Davis immediately. And a few months into the job, Davis is thrilled with the choice he made. What Davis has learned, as he heads out on the road recruiting this month and begins practicing with his team ahead of a trip to Canada to play four games from Aug. 4-11, is that the commitment is real for men’s basketball.
Former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy won an SEC tournament title and was well-liked within the league and on campus. Kennedy steered the transition from the dated Tad Pad to the Pavilion in 2016.
“They are all in for basketball at the highest level,’’ Davis said. “I mean it. I said this when we played at the Pavilion while I was at Middle Tennessee State, it’s the best on-campus arena in college basketball in the country. It’s not the biggest, but it’s the best. I took my team at Middle there twice. It’s got every bell and whistle for the fan experience. And our (Sean) Tuohy Basketball Center (practice facility) is as nice as there is.’’
Davis isn’t about trashing the previous coaching staff. He knows Kennedy had long odds to make Ole Miss a consistent winner. Neither history nor facilities were on his side. Kennedy went to two NCAA tournaments (including the 2013 season when the Rebels won the SEC tournament) and five NIT appearances in 12 seasons. Davis, whose father coached at Mississippi State, took Middle Tennessee to three NCAA tournaments in 16 seasons. Davis previously was a head coach at Idaho (twice), Texas A&M and an assistant in the SEC at Mississippi State (where he played for two seasons) and LSU.
“Andy is a great friend of mine. Some of the things he had to do at the Tad was remarkable,’’ Davis said. “I think with the Pavilion, it’s now up to us to recruit to it, coach to it to be a national brand.’’
Davis said the SEC, with its network, nationally known coaches and the depth of teams now getting into the NCAA tournament, make it “the best it’s been.’’ He said he's already told his team that Tennessee and Auburn winning a share of the SEC last season despite being picked near the bottom of the league prior to 2017-18 should show what’s possible.
“The facilities in the league, the TV money, the coaches, it has changed the perception since I was last in the league,’’ said Davis, who left LSU in 2002 to be the head coach at Middle Tennessee. “We recruited a kid from the West Coast who said he watched the SEC Network before the Pac-12 Network. The brand helps basketball a ton.’’
The season will be here before we know it! Which game are you most looking forward to, non-conference and SEC play? pic.twitter.com/HNYeDRNTXc— Ole Miss Basketball (@OleMissMBB) July 6, 2018
Davis isn’t trying to reinvent anything at Ole Miss. He is putting his stamp on the program early and that means changing the tempo in practice. The Rebels have their backcourt returning, led by three guards Breein Tyree, Terence Davis and Devontae Shuler.
“How they handle leadership through coaching after going through an adverse situation (Kennedy stepped down in mid-February) will be critical to this team’s progress,’’ Davis said.
He said he will be watching in summer practices and on this trip the development of three key forwards — returnee Bruce Stevens and freshmen Blake Hinson and K.J. Buffen.
The Rebels won’t be picked to make the NCAA tournament after losing 11 of 12 to end last season. But that’s fine with Davis. He’s expecting this summer's trip to be the launching pad needed to jump start the program.
“We’ve got a great place to sell,’’ said Davis. “And we’ve got the commitment to basketball.’’