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Ole Miss defied odds en route to earning NCAA Tournament berth

Just 363 days ago, Kermit Davis walked into the team meeting room at the Tuohy Center at his new job and addressed his team for the first time. 

It was a demoralized group that had just lost 13 of its last 14 games. Andy Kennedy was relived of his duties, substantial roster attrition was anticipated and All-SEC guard Terence Davis was kicking the tires on professional basketball. To put it simply, the Ole Miss program was in shambles and rectifying it appeared to be a multi-year project. Kermit Davis told the team that the 2018-19 season wouldn’t be a rebuild, citing that it would be unfair to Terence Davis in his final season. The team would tell you they believed him at the time, but truthfully, success was hard to picture given the state of things around them.

That all became a reality on Sunday as a scene of sheer elation unfolded inside The Pavilion when CBS’ Greg Gumbel uttered the Rebels’ named on national television that Ole Miss is the eight seed in The South Region and will play Oklahoma on Friday night in Columbia, South Carolina. A grin spread across Kermit Davis’ face as his players celebrated around him.

“I’m just speechless, man,” Terence Davis said. “It is a dream come true.”

Truthfully, this became a reality long ago. Not necessarily that the Rebels’ would be in the NCAA Tournament, but that Kermit Davis’ declaration that this was no rebuild would hold true. He and his players pointed to the first SEC game of the year, a cold January Saturday night in Nashville in an obscure gym against a Vanderbilt team that was seen as feisty at the time. The Rebels would win a close game to earn their second true road win of the year. For perspective, Ole Miss didn’t win a true road game last season until March, with an interim coach at the helm. The win gave them confidence. It was a sign that a mental fortitude was developing, something that was lacking a season ago and something crucial to orchestrating the turnaround the Rebels’ would ultimately complete.

“We talked so much about winning on the road in the SEC,” Kermit Davis said. “We talked about it the first week I got the job. Can we go be competitive on the road in this league? To win that one, I think it gave our guys a new confidence level, even more confidence in the staff and the preparation in what we were doing. We had a lot of good wins, but that was probably the biggest.”

Over the next week, Ole Miss would storm onto the national stage with wins over Auburn and at Mississippi State, all the way to earning a No. 18 national ranking. It was the first time the program had been ranked since 2013. Peaks and valleys would follow as the team trudged through a rugged SEC. Ole Miss endured losing streaks of three and four games. It didn’t break them. The mental toughness and mentality change was taking shape. A year prior might have been a different story. 

“I know the talent (Terence Davis has) and I knew the talent I have and everyone else on this team has,” Breein Tyree said. “I am not going to say I knew we were going to make the NCAA Tournament, but that was our goal.”

Ole Miss won 10 games in a league it was projected to finish last in. They notched four quadrant one wins, a plus .500 road record, and now, just the program’s second at-large bid since 2002. Kermit Davis injected energy and interest into the Ole Miss program, and inside a building that hadn’t sold out since the first two games after it opened. Ole Miss sold out The Pavilion five times. It averaged 7,816 fans per game, a program record. The building had life in meaningful games late in the year.

“I watch everyone when they come in here and they either lose, or are lucky to get out alive,” John Calipari said two weeks ago.

 Kermit Davis needed some breaks to to make this season a reality, beginning with his All-SEC guard electing to return to school, but this unexpected rise rise was masterfully constructed. Kermit Davis built around three high-level guards and got all the other pieces to be the best individual versions of themselves. It is why he deservingly won SEC Coach of the Year. Ole Miss knew it was an NCAA Tournament caliber team for the better part of the last two months. But make no mistake about it, this season defied the odds and every single prognostication.

“I am glad I chose to come back to school,” Terence Davis said. “It is the best decision I have ever made.”

Kermit Davis is setting a foundation that most thought would take three or more years to construct. He saw opportunity in the Ole Miss job. He desired to get back to a high-major program 27 years after his last head coaching opportunity at one and found that chance in his home state. 

“He deserves to be at a place like this,” Ross Bjork said. “He is a great coach. He knows the game. He is well-respected.”

When Bjork set out to find a coach, he was quoted saying that he desired to wake up on Selection Sunday knowing he was in the NCAA Tournament. When Bjork woke up on Sunday, he had a watch-party to attend, and the only thing he didn’t know was the location and the opponent.

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