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Ole Miss’ upset over Auburn was much more than just one win

The dramatic home win seems to be proof-of-concept of first-year coach Kermit Davis’ plan to overhaul Rebel hoops.

Josh McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

Terence Davis strode exuberantly through the tall, pearl-white halls of The Pavilion, the palatial manor Ole Miss built three years ago to house what it hoped would be the resurgence of its basketball program. Davis, still drenched in the sweat and ecstasy of a 15-point, program-shaking home win over No. 11 Auburn, was the last of the Rebel players to make it back to the locker room. He’d been held up on the court doing interview after interview about a 27-point, 12-rebound night that seemed—at least to the 8,000 fans packed in to watch it—to redefine Rebel hoops. Any time the Tigers appeared to be sneaking back into the game, Davis was there with a dagger three or an arena-shaking dunk to hold them at bay.

Finally back to the locker room, Davis found his teammates already celebrating their 12-2 start to the season. As they turned to greet him, the senior guard delivered a defiant proclamation.

“This is the new normal!” he shouted just before the room exploded into a frenzy of flying water and leaping bodies.

How prescient Davis’ exclamation turns out to be is still very much in the air. Wednesday was just one night. Even considered alongside the rest of head coach Kermit Davis’ surprising first season in Oxford, we only have a 14-game sample size from which to draw conclusions—hardly enough to confidently chart a path to a new age in Ole Miss basketball.

Still, something seemed different on Wednesday night. It was the type of moment the athletic department has been dreaming of since it first committed nearly $100 million to build a state-of-the art arena in the shadow—both literally and figuratively—of the school’s football stadium. Basketball has never truly captivated the Rebel fan base. Even in its best seasons, like Marshall Henderson’s SEC title run in 2013, it’s rarely been more than an entertaining bridge between football and baseball.

The pursuit of moments like Wednesday night is what drove the department to push out longtime coach Andy Kennedy last February. The admirable consistency of the AK era had devolved into a malaise that alienated most of the fanbase. Kennedy may be the winningest coach in program history, but his two NCAA appearances in 12 seasons weren’t putting butts in seats.

The hiring of Kermit Davis didn’t exactly flood the ticket office either. Well-respected among the coaching community after steering Middle Tennessee to multiple NCAA Tourney appearances, he nevertheless carried little name recognition among the Ole Miss fan base. Most were underwhelmed with the hire. Many openly questioned whether getting rid of AK was the right call.

Its taken Davis all of 14 games to obliterate those sentiments, at least for the time being. It started after the second game of the season, when the Rebels hung tight on the road against a much more talented Butler team. The energy ratcheted up after an upset win over Baylor at the Emerald Coast Classic. After a loss to Cincinnati, Kermit’s team cruised undefeated through the remainder of its non-con slate, winning five of the seven games by double digits.

But it wasn’t until a surprise win in Nashville to kick off the SEC schedule that Ole Miss fans really started paying attention. Sharpshooting guard Breein Tyree dropped 31 and Kermit’s patented 1-3-1 zone chocked off Vandy’s shooters for most of the impressive 81-71 W.

Now Davis’ Rebels, picked by the media to finish dead last in the SEC, are 2-0 in-conference and squarely in NCAA Tournament conversation.

“What Kermit was able to do was he was able to give them a little bit more discipline offensively,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said after the game Wednesday night. “They are valuing possessions more. Andy gave them a little bit more freedom but as a result of that freedom there were some times that they would have empty possessions. You don’t have empty possessions with Kermit. They are terrifically offensively efficient. Kermit Davis is one of the best coaches in our country.”

Indeed, Ole Miss has jumped up to 27th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, some 20 spots higher than it finished in any of Kennedy’s final three seasons in Oxford. The Rebels rank 13th in the country in field goal percentage while Terence Davis and Tyree both find themselves among the SEC’s top seven players in offensive rating.

Not that Ole Miss fans shouldn’t temper their expectations a bit. This roster, built for Kennedy’s run-n-gun attack, not Kermit’s methodical, defense-first scheme, still has plenty of holes. The lack of size and depth down low is particularly concerning—Auburn’s rebounding advantage in the second half brought them close to a comeback multiple times on Wednesday night. If the Rebels’ red-hot shooting cools off, this team could float back to earth.

Regardless, it’s impossible not be enthused by the early returns of the Davis era. Even if this season doesn’t end with dancing in March, the Rebels’ new head man has proven his rebuild is ahead of schedule.

“To see the fan base come together this early—there aren’t students on campus and the student section was full,” Kermit said on Wednesday night. “The Ole Miss spirit is fabulous and if you give them something that they want to see, they will come out.”

Thus far, the Rebels’ new coach has given his fan base plenty of what they want to see. Whether the early success presages a paradigm shift to a new normal is to be determined, but for one night at least, it certainly felt like it.