FAYETTEVILLE — Ole Miss was picked to finish dead last this season by a panel of SEC and national media members.
Can you blame them?
The Rebels had the worst SEC record at 5-13 last year, and tied Vanderbilt at 12-20 for the worst overall mark as the only sub .500 teams in the conference.
Coach Andy Kennedy announced Feb. 12 that he would step down at the end of the year, but after a rough week that included a 75-64 home loss to the University of Arkansas and a 79-62 loss at Mississippi State, he resigned for good Feb. 18. Kennedy, who never had a losing record in his previous 12 years at the school, admitted he had trouble relating to his team.
Enter veteran coach Kermit Davis.
Utilizing a group of veteran guards and a renewed spirit, the Rebels have been writing the surprise story of the year in SEC basketball.
Ole Miss knocked off top-15 teams — No. 11 Auburn and No. 14 Mississippi State — in back-to-back games last week for the first time in school history, then jumped into The Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since 2013 at No. 18.
The Pavilion at Ole Miss (capacity 9,500) is sold-out for today’s noon tipoff against the struggling Arkansas Razorbacks (10-6, 1-3), who have opened 1-3 in SEC play for the third consecutive year. The Rebels (13-3, 3-1) had their 10-game winning streak snapped Tuesday in an 83-69 home loss to LSU.
But the work Davis has done, such as being the first Ole Miss coach to open league play 3-0, is being trumpeted by his peers.
“Kermit has done an awfully good job of really utilizing the talents that these guys have,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Their guard play is their strength. They have guys who can attack, they can score. Kermit’s done a good job of mixing and matching their defense.
“I think Kermit has kind of inserted a sense of urgency defensively. They’re better.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said he has faced Davis’ squads nine times in the past 10 years.
“First of all, Andy Kennedy left the program in really good shape,” Pearl said. “I know what a great coach Kermit Davis is. The biggest impact he’s had is they play hard and physical defensively. And then offensively, they’re incredibly efficient. In other words, fewer bad shots, fewer empty possessions, more purpose each time down offensively.
“Then of course, it affects winning and you get buy-in. Some of the guards that played with a little bit more freedom and a little less discipline the year before are now locked in and valuing possessions and trusting what coach wants them to do.”
Ole Miss guards Breein Tyree and Terence Davis, the team’s top scorers with 17.2 and 16.1 points per game, respectively, were back-to-back winners of SEC Player of the Week honors the first two weeks of league play.
Kermit Davis, a Mississippi State graduate who was familiar with the Rebels’ roster as the 16-year head coach at Middle Tennessee State, knew he was inheriting a solid team that had underperformed in Kennedy’s final season.
“When we first got the job, the first day, I looked at Terence Davis and I said, ‘It’s not going to be fair to say we’re going to be in this huge rebuilding mode,’” Kermit Davis said. “The buy-in process, it takes time. You have to spend time together. You have to go through some tough things in practice together and respond appropriately, both sides.
“One thing, they knew us. We had played Ole Miss two or three times. They kind of knew us. They knew about how we played. I think there was mutual respect both ways going in. I think that helped the process a lot.”
Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew had a court-side seat as Ole Miss opened SEC play with an 81-71 victory over his Commodores in Nashville, Tenn., on Jan. 5.
“Watching film, we knew how good they were,” Drew said. “You could tell how they ran their action and how they competed.
“But I think the element that a lot of people are missing on this is how inspired they’re playing. They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder. They’re playing with something to prove. I think that gives that extra level of energy, that extra level of focus. It’s helped get them over the hump in some of these close games they’ve won early.”
Davis said the team’s August trip to Canada, where the Rebels went 3-1 in exhibition games in Montreal and Ottawa, served as a critical learning tool.
“We took our team to Canada, and we got a lot of bad basketball out of our system,” Davis said. “We won three games, lost to a really good Carleton team. We didn’t really understand pace of practice, attention to detail.
“I found out more about our team. Some things we could do, some things we maybe didn’t need to do. I don’t think I’ve ever had a team, as an assistant or a head coach, make as much progress as we’ve made from that trip to now.”
Davis said a turning point came in a game the Rebels were down 44-17 in Canada and came back to win.
“We’re not coaching attitude anymore, not coaching effort,” he said. “Obviously, you start doing those two things you’re not going to have any success in your league. We’ve become a more mature team.”