The 2019-2020 Ole Miss basketball season has been disappointing to say the least, but building a program under a new head coach is not an overnight fix. Yes, the 2018-2019 season exceeded expectations for a first-year Kermit Davis, but it showed Davis can win with the right talent on the roster.
Patience is a virtue devoid of most fans, but recent history within the SEC speaks to the notion that athletic directors are giving basketball programs time to flourish.
As the conference begins to place a larger emphasis on basketball, six of 14 head coaches have been hired since 2018, and the man who came to Oxford by way of Middle Tennessee State is one of them. Those with longer tenure include John Calipari, Ben Howland, Mike White and Rick Barnes. Included in the mix is Auburn’s bell cow Bruce Pearl, who is a good example of growing pains.
The Tigers, currently sitting No. 15 in the nation, will make the tournament for their third straight year after a Final Four run last season. Despite all F.B.I. efforts to stop the triumphant run, Pearl has established a winning way on The Plains that doesn’t show signs of stopping.
But it wasn’t always that way. Success takes time.
Ole Miss fans need to be patient like Auburn fans were.
Pearl was hired in 2014 and followed seven straight coaches unable to eclipse the .600 winning percentage mark. Through his first two seasons, neither did he. Auburn went 15-20 in the transition year, but advanced to the SEC Tournament semifinals as a 13-seed. It was progress from the year prior and that is all a program can ask.
In Davis’ first year at Ole Miss, he inherited rising NBA superstar Terence Davis Jr., a soon-to-blossom Breein Tyree, and a bench that did a good job holding its ground in a supporting role. With a team of such caliber, the Rebels won 20 games and made the big dance as an eight seed, before getting smoked by Oklahoma.
It was an impressive start out of the gates, and the hype surrounding Davis brought a rejuvenated sense of hope. A tangible buzz was in the air as season ticket sales skyrocketed, national media entities began to turn their head, and analysts pointed to the Rebels as a sleeper team to watch in 2019-2020.
Bruce’s encore was a rough one much like Kermit’s.
Similarly, when Pearl’s second season began, the expectation for significant improvement was high.
Instead, Auburn flopped.
The Tigers went 11-20 and lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament. It was a disastrous finish for the second-year head coach, but it came with a grain of salt.
At the time of Pearl’s hire, he still had five months remaining on his show-cause order for violations at his previous school, and could not have contact with recruits during the summer period. His first recruiting class was shallow, and thus, the talent was lacking and the youth was abundant when he began the 2015-2016 campaign that ended in poor results.
On the contrary, Davis came to Ole Miss and landed the school’s best recruiting class since 2012, and followed it up with a confident class in his second year.
As a result, entering the 2019-2020 season, Davis’ second at the helm, Ole Miss had a lot of promise. And yet, the Rebels have sung a sorrow tune likened to licking an ice cream cone, but having the scoop fall flat on the pavement at your feet. The team has been bad, and the record will show it.
But at certain moments, success could be tasted — until it couldn’t.
Since the second-year drop-off, Auburn has been on a steady incline to 25 wins in the last three seasons and have landed top-25 recruiting classes in each year following Pearl’s release from show-cause sanctions. The system was established, the players bought in, and the results followed.
Auburn Tigers, Midwest Region champions, going to the Final Four: pic.twitter.com/55Ebf0ZyPT— Josh Vitale (@JoshVitale) March 31, 2019
There is something in Oxford to work with though.
Like Auburn, there is a strong foundation built at Ole Miss, and the program is trending in the right direction. Davis has proven his ability to coach bad teams to good teams and good teams to great teams. This season could have gone very differently, and if each game that was lost by five points or less flipped the other direction, the Rebels would be sitting with a record of 19-9, of which four losses came against top-25 opponents.
However, even with squinted-eye success in 2019-2020, the future could seem grim as Breein Tyree heads for the pros. Tyree averages 20.4 points each time he steps foot on the court, and is the team’s leading scorer by nine points, likely to finish second in the SEC in points per game. The team’s success has gone by way of his scoring, and with arguably the best point guard in the school’s history moving on, it will be an undeniable struggle to replace his production next season.
Nevertheless, unlike Pearl’s first couple of years, Davis has himself a base of underclassmen and incoming recruits who could mature into strong players that step up and fill the void.
Blake Hinson continues to work back to full form after doctors discovered a blood abnormality, Luis Rodriguez was expected to take on significant minutes off of the bench before breaking his foot in the opening week, and K.J. Buffen and Khadim Sy have shown their abilities but haven’t quite put it all together.
Joining the core four on the court will be Oxford native guard Jarkel Joiner, who had to sit out a year after transferring from CSU Bakersfield where he led the Roadrunners in scoring in nine of 30 games, and four-star standout recruit Matt Murrell who has made a name for himself at IMG Academy this season.
There is no way to know which (if any) players will pan out, and there is no way to know if Ole Miss can turn it up a notch during the third-year under Davis, but recent success with one of the top programs in the SEC illustrates the idea that reaching the top is a marathon, not a sprint.
Be patient. If Pearl and the Tigers can flip the switch, so can Davis and the Rebels.
Ole Miss hosts an abysmal Vanderbilt team on Saturday, and follows it up with a middle-of-the-road Missouri team on senior night, before heading to the worst basketball facility in America to face Mississippi State in the Egg Basket. The ever-volatile Rebels could foreseeably go 3-0 to cap the season on a high note, or drop two of three.
Either way, be sure to appreciate the Tyree farewell tour while you can, and look at the future of Ole Miss basketball for what it is — in the hands of Kermit Davis, a damn good coach.
Sip the tea.