Column: Kermit Davis can lead Ole Miss basketball to new heights

Posted on Mar 19 2018 - 5:58am by Flint Christian

The announcement of Kermit Davis’ hiring as head coach of the Ole Miss basketball team brings a promising new look to the program.

Davis, who was previously the head coach at Middle Tennessee State, is best known for his 2016 trip to the NCAA Tournament, during which the Blue Raiders shocked the nation by upsetting No. 2 seed Michigan State 90-81 as a No. 15 seed. However, his success extends beyond that year. Davis-led Middle Tennessee teams also made NCAA Tournament appearances in 2013 and in 2017 when they pulled another upset over No. 5 seed Minnesota.

Tournament success aside, Davis’ coaching style and demeanor are an excellent fit for Ole Miss.

One problem the Rebels have faced in recent years is recruiting at a high level. Though recruiting success doesn’t always translate to wins on the court, one could argue that the best team under former head coach Andy Kennedy was the 2013 Marshall Henderson-led SEC Tournament champions. That team also happened to be the product of Kennedy’s top-ranked recruiting classes strung together.

Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis celebrates after the team’s 82-64 win over Western Kentucky on March 1, 2018. Davis will be joining the Ole Miss staff as head coach for the men’s basketball team. AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

On the court, Davis brings a set system from Middle Tennessee that has a specific kind of player he can attract, train and develop. Davis employs the 1-3-1 zone on defense, which Ole Miss fans might recognize from Kennedy’s occasional foray into the system. The unique look of the 1-3-1 often causes confusion, turnovers and easy, fast-break buckets as players disrupt the normal passing lanes opposing teams look for. Davis used the system to great effect at Middle Tennessee, and his Blue Raiders teams finished in the top 30 nationally in points allowed per game in four of the past six years.

With a program that has struggled to recruit top-level prospects, the idea of a defensive-minded system that places emphasis on effort, repetition and athleticism rather than offensive skill is tantalizing.

Before Davis can recruit his own starting five, he has to utilize the current Ole Miss roster, for which his schemes fit perfectly. Davis’ zone system relies on quickness and length rather than bulk and strength, and his guard-heavy Middle Tennessee teams often played without a center. The Rebels have often done the same in recent seasons, and their top returning players are guards Terence Davis, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler and forward Bruce Stevens, who should all plug right into the new head coach’s system.

On offense, Davis prefers to slow down the game and wind the shot clock. The steadier pace should lead to better shots and shot selection, especially coming off of a year when the Rebels took the 80th-most 3-pointers at a 31.9 percent conversion rate, good for only 324th nationally.

Though his Middle Tennessee teams speak for themselves, questions do come with Davis’ hire:

Can his 1-3-1 zone stand up to athletic firepower from Kentucky, Florida and other SEC teams, considering Davis often played with an athletically superior Middle Tennessee team?

Can Davis recruit well enough to compete with the rising competition in the SEC?

Will Davis outperform the pressure and win early and often enough to not live in the shadow of Andy Kennedy?

Given his resume of success, coaching style and inherited cast, head coach Kermit Davis is ready to answer these questions and looks to give Ole Miss a fresh renovation defined by success.