In a way, Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis was the beneficiary of low expectations during his first season.
Barring a total calamity in Nashville at the SEC tournament, the Rebels will pop up in the NCAA tournament bracket on Sunday afternoon, the program’s first foray into the 68-team field since 2015. That’s a far cry from its moribund state just a year ago following a tumble to the bottom of the SEC standings — punctuated losing 11 of 12 games to close the season — and the resignation of long-time coach Andy Kennedy.
And how was the hiring of Davis greeted? Tepid applause. And that’s a generous interpretation. In a way, it even ran counter to the logic laid out by athletic director Ross Bjork before he scoured the country searching for Kennedy’s replacement.
Instead of paying a premium for a proven commodity or betting on youthful vigor, Bjork settled on a 59-year-old coach who spent 11 years methodically building at Middle Tennessee. No one doubted Davis acumen. Instead, the question was whether he was at a point in his career to wrestle with the challenges that come with running the show in Oxford.
Bear in mind, Ole Miss only recently moved into a glittering new facility, leaving behind the 8,700-seat Tad Smith Coliseum, where the visiting locker room was infested with vermin. During Kennedy’s 11-year tenure, his financial resources regularly rated near the bottom of the conference, spending an average of $4.6 million, per data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. Finally, good luck trying to pry recruits out of Memphis with Penny Hardaway on the job.
So apart from a new building, the fundamentals of the Ole Miss job remain mostly unchanged in a conference whose membership is now pumping resources into their programs.
What Davis did inherit, however, was an underrated roster. Back in January, I laid out why the Rebels might defy expectations, and that case largely rested on the presence of Breein Tyree, Devontae Shuler and Terence Davis, a ready-made backcourt for a coach who relies on athletic wings hounding opponents in a zone press. He was also equipped with senior forward Bruce Stevens, an undersized and underrated post player who didn’t need sets run for him to produce.
Unlike Tom Crean at Georgia, whose personnel didn’t quite fit is preferred scheme, and the mass exoduses that occurred at Texas A&M and Arkansas, Davis had the hardware required to optimize his software. The only question was how much debugging would be necessary.
Yet recency bias isn’t a rare phenomenon, and back in October, the Rebels were picked to again finish in the SEC cellar. Judge against those prognostications, Davis’ debut was an unabashed success.
While you could make a case for South Carolina’s Frank Martin, the Gamecock’s analytic profile largely tracks with expectations. His team managed to be beneficiary of going 5-0 in SEC games decided by less than two possessions — a fact Martin himself acknowledged after taking a loss to Missouri. As for LSU and Will Wade, you don’t need to invoke the quickly mushrooming pay-for-play controversy engulfing him in Baton Rouge. Equipped with a top-five recruiting class, the Tigers were a trendy preseason pick to contend for a conference title.
In a minute, Sam will lay out his case for Rick Barnes and his qualms with how we select coach of the year. And I don’t think you can dismiss his critique. Over the past couple of years, Tennessee’s coach has wrung every last drop of improvement out of his roster. If we’re judging coaching success on a longitudinal curve, the evidence for Barnes is more than robust.
My view is that we judge each season on its own merits, and while Tennessee did improve — see Sam’s pitch below — it’s not nearly to the same degree as what Davis pulled off. For example, Ole Miss’ offensive efficiency rose 40 spots (No. 28), while its defensive efficiency made a tremendous leap to 76th from 168th nationally, according to KenPom. Take a look below, and you can see a side-by-side comparison.
Perhaps observers grossly undervalued the talent bequeathed to Davis, but Ole Miss’ woes in Kennedy’s final years always appeared to be equal parts psychological and cultural. We can debate how much schematic retrofitting Davis needed to do, but there’s little doubt he generated buy-in from veterans, quickly integrated freshmen Blake Hinson and KJ Buffen, and primed a moribund program for early success.
To me, the debate boils down to whether you reward Barnes for putting the finishing touches on a wildly successful rebuild, or single out Davis for getting a head start on his reclamation project. None of this sets aside doubts about Davis’ long-term viability, but judged on this season alone, his case for coach of the year seems sound.
— Matt Harris
Don’t discount what Rick Barnes has done
I’ve made this argument in private over the last few weeks multiple times, and I keep having to impress an essential part of all of this: by saying I’m not sure Kermit Davis deserves coach of the year in the SEC, I’m not saying he didn’t do a great job.
Davis had, without a doubt, one of the top coaching jobs in the league this year. But my argument is more about the process by which we decide these kinds of categories. Teams with higher expectations are punished by meeting expectations while middle-of-the-road teams are rewarded for having lower expectations.
Maybe the problem has to do with the expectations rather than the final product.
It seemed early on that Ole Miss was far better than their awful projections from the beginning of the season. The Rebels entered league play at 13-2 and were already sitting in an excellent position to vie for an NCAA bid. They had success against Auburn and split with Mississippi State, but otherwise, they beat a bunch of bad teams in Georgia, Missouri, Vandy, Texas A&M and Arkansas. This season amounted to a nice rebound season for the Rebels, and I think Davis is a good fit for that program to maximize the program’s talent and finances going forward.
Tennessee is built differently right now. The expectations were high because Barnes and his band of under-recruited veterans set the bar high, and they exceeded the expectations this season. Rick Barnes made a gamble years ago when he took the job in Knoxville, he gambled on his ability to assemble the kind of talent that could compete for SEC titles. He gambled on a 6-foot-5 forward thought to be headed to the Ivy League, and helped him become an SEC player of the year. He gambled on Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowen, Kyle Alexander, and Admiral Schofield. (Schofield was only player who previously committed to UT before Barnes arrival).
Barnes took all these guys and in a few short years earned a share of the league title. He deserved the Coach of the Year last year. And I think he deserves it this year again.
The Vols got better offensively, going from 1.15 PPP to 1.22 PPP. Their defense got worse by basically not defending the 3-point line as well, but in every other defensive statistical category, they improved. Fewer offensive rebounds, fewer free throws, better block percentage.
We tend to spend a lot of award season for coaches giving out the awards to guys whose teams had low expectations and exceeded them, and not considering the guys whose teams had higher expectations and had less room to improve but still do. Kermit Davis improving the Rebels from an expected 13th or 14th place finish all the way up to 7th is excellent. Tennessee was picked to finish second and, well, finished second. They missed first place by a weirdly officiated game in Baton Rouge and still improved year over year in the conference by two wins.
All of that is just impressive. And I hate that everyone is fairly dismissive about the job Barnes has done with this team in favor of Davis, who, as Matt mentioned, arrived to find three excellent guards on it.
The last thing I want to say is this, and I don’t mean this pit one coach against another, but I’m not sure how I would vote. Last year Barnes was a slam dunk. This year it’s a toss up, but I might give the edge to the guy in Knoxville.
— Sam Snelling