Ole Miss basketball is going dancing.
The Rebels will head to Columbia, South Carolina, as an 8 seed, facing off against 9 seed Oklahoma on Friday. The Sooners went 19-13 this season and finished No. 7 in the Big 12.
Following a four-year hiatus, the Rebels are back in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament after compiling 20 wins, a sixth-place finish in the SEC and a top-40 NET ranking. To cap off the season, the Southeastern Conference and the Associated Press rewarded head coach Kermit Davis with SEC Coach of the Year.
This is the first time since 2002 that Ole Miss will enter the tournament with a true at-large bid. The team received an automatic bid after winning the SEC Tournament in 2013 and a play-in bid in 2015.
Ole Miss was picked to finish last in the SEC before the season began, due in part to Andy Kennedy’s abrupt exit mid-season and Kermit Davis’s arrival. The nucleus of this year’s team is only marginally different than that of the 2018 team that lost 20 games and found itself alone at the bottom of the SEC standings.
The difference was Kermit Davis.
The Rebels’ first-year coach has now led three different programs to the tournament — Idaho, Middle Tennessee and Ole Miss. Success has followed Kermit Davis wherever he’s carried his clipboard, and it has become an expectation.
“It was exactly our goal,” Kermit Davis said. “It wasn’t just said in the press conference for coach-speak and to make it look good for TV. I meant it. I hate to sound egotistical, but we’ve won a lot of games over the last eight or nine years, so I guess if you get used to winning a little bit, you kind of expect that that’s going to happen.”
Kermit Davis reinvigorated the program from the ground up. His emphasis on defense and ball movement turned Breein Tyree and Terence Davis into one of the SEC’s most lethal backcourts. Ole Miss won 10 conference games in a time when the SEC was arguably the second best league in America. This wasn’t Kermit Davis’s first turnaround, however.
As a 28-year-old and the youngest Division I head coach in America at the time, Kermit Davis took a previously 19-win Idaho team to consecutive 25-win seasons en route to two NCAA Tournament berths.
By winning 20 games this season after Ole Miss won just 12 last year, Kermit Davis spearheaded the largest turnaround out of all Power 5 teams in the country. The SEC and AP acknowledged this turnaround and awarded him SEC Coach of the Year. It’s a testament to the culture he has created, but he’ll tell you its a product of the fanbase.
The Pavilion sold out five times this season, and attendance increased by 13 percent, the largest increase in the SEC.
Ole Miss won 20 games on the backs of the triumvirate of Terence Davis, Tyree and Devontae Shuler. The trio makes up 58 percent of the team’s scoring output, and all three players average over 30 minutes per game. Kermit Davis only plays eight guys, and the eighth man — D.C. Davis — averages just 12 minutes a night. The team won 20 games behind a nucleus of two freshman, two junior college transfers and a 7-footer who averages fewer than three rebounds per game.
The team is not finished yet, but the turnaround of the program puts Kermit Davis and the Ole Miss program in position to improve even further in the coming years.
“It’s unbelievable for recruiting. You just think about what happened with the fanbase growing, sellouts, national TV and how it looked on TV,” Kermit Davis said. “Now you get your name in the tournament, but also you start having success in the tournament. That’s when you really start getting your brand out there, so there’s going to be nothing but a lot of positives going out there.”
The team will return to Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, where they lost 79-64 to South Carolina earlier this season, to face an Oklahoma team that went 19-13 overall and 7-11 in the Big 12. Kermit Davis wants the Rebels to swing the momentum back to their side for their meeting with the Sooners after a dreadful loss to Alabama in the second round of the SEC tournament.
“You’re going to play a team that’s good,” Kermit Davis said. “It still leads up to preparation. You can’t skip to the games. You still have to go through that same preparation but keep these guys fresh-minded and anxious to play on Friday.”