Davis, Blue Raiders Featured in Basketball TimesApril 11, 2003 · Steve Kiggins
This month's Basketball Times features a full-page story on Kermit Davis and the 2002-03 season. Thanks to author Steve Kiggins and Basketball Times editor John Akers, GoBlueRaiders.com is re-publishing the article for all Blue Raider fans to read.
Armed with hope (and Tommy Gunn), Middle Tennessee takes aim on '03-'04
So much went right for Middle Tennessee State this season.
The Blue Raiders posted their first winning record since the 1999-2000 season.
They disproved their critics, who picked them eighth in the Sun Belt Conference's preseason poll, and finished second to Western Kentucky in the East Division.
They reached the Sun Belt tournament title game for the first time in program history.
Kermit Davis, in his first season in Murfreesboro, became only the third MTSU bench boss to garner conference coach of the year honors.
Tommy Gunn established himself as one of the Sun Belt's best players - and he should be even better as a senior next season.
Attendance at the Murphy Center jumped, increasing by more than a 1,000 fans per game compared to a season ago.
In fact, the Blue Raiders did it all this season - except realize their dream of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Give Davis some time. He'll get there.
"I've been in college coaching for 21 years and this was the most improvement that I've ever been associated with as far as from where you started to where you end," says Davis, who spent five seasons as the associate head coach at LSU before coming to MTSU last April. "I've won more games, but I've never seen more improvement from a team."
Not even the Blue Raiders' 64-52 loss to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt championship game could dull Davis' excitement.
"It was disappointing we lost, sure, but still when you sit back and look at, we made a ton of progress in a lot of different areas in our program," says Davis, whose team won nine of its final 12 games to finish at 16-14.
The road to respectability wasn't easy, though.
MTSU lost five of its first six games - including home setbacks against East Carolina and Tennessee Tech - and Davis admits that his players struggled to adjust to his rigorous practice schedule and up-tempo style of play.
Plus, Davis says, the Blue Raiders simply lacked confidence following back-to-back losing seasons. Only two seasons ago, MTSU was the laughingstock of the Sun Belt following a 1-15 campaign that included 11 double-digit losses.
"We had to have a work ethic and a discipline in our program and learn how to win. A lot of guys fought it, you know, as far just understanding that you have to go practice every day," Davis says. "We had a little breaking point. It was probably the first week of November. We were 1-5, and we were right into them every day at practice and our team was struggling.
"I said, 'Guys, we're going to keep losing, or you guys are going to finally buy in,'" Davis recalls. "And then - finally - I think they gave in and said, 'We're going to listen to this guy,' and we got a couple of big wins. Then our team just started believing in what we were doing."
The Blue Raiders' resurgence began with a December victory against IUPUI, which went on to claim the Mid-Continent Conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. A month later, MTSU beat WKU and Arkansas State to open conference play and the wheels were in motion.
"The biggest thing is, they bought into what we were trying to do. I'm not saying we have all the right answers, but they bought into a way of how to work," says Davis, who compiled a sparkling 63-29 record in two seasons as head coach at Idaho before departing for Baton Rouge in 1997. "We became a real good practice team and after we did that, our team started winning games."
As the Blue Raiders began to win, their fans began to pay attention. MTSU drew its largest crowds of the season in February, attracting 5,135 against Florida International and 4,129 against Arkansas-Little Rock.
Inside the Murphy Center, the Blue Raiders' fans were treated to a vastly improved brand of basketball, led by Gunn, a 6-foot-2 guard from Syracuse, N.Y., who earned first-team Sun Belt honors.
This Gunn didn't fire too many blanks. He led MTSU in scoring at 15.9 points per game, up nearly four points from his 2001-02 average of 12.5. Gunn was the team's leading scorer in 11 games, including a 30-point showing against New Orleans and a 29-point effort against Tennessee Martin.
Also, Gunn led the Blue Raiders with 59 3-pointers and 38 steals.
"Next year, I think Tommy is a guy who will vie for most valuable player in our league," says Davis. "He's one of the most athletic two-guards in the country. He can finish at the goal, he shot a high percentage from the 3, about 43 percentage. He'll definitely be our go-to guy next year."
Gunn's supporting cast figures to contribute its fair share, too.
Forward/center Napolean Rhodes (6.4 points, 5.1 rebounds) and guards Marcus Robinson (4.7 points, 40 percent from 3-point range) and Keith Connor (3.9 points, 1.6 assists) were key contributors this season and will be expected to play important roles again in 2003-04.
Plus, Davis' incoming class of recruits - led by 6-8 blue chipper Alex Weekes of Lilburn, Ga. - is widely regarded as the best in the Sun Belt.
Weekes, ranked as the nation's 54th best prospect by Hoopscoop, averaged 12 points, 10.5 rebounds and three blocked shots as a junior. This season, Weekes was equally impressive, although his Berkmar High team failed to reach the state tournament for the first time since 1999.
"I think the reason why Western has separated itself from the league is they've gone out and got really good high school players," Davis says. "We're going to do the same. We've made a commitment to high school players. Next year, I think a firm base will be laid and we'll be coaching guys for four years."
Davis, of course, hopes to be coaching those players in the NCAA Tournament.
For the fans in Murfreesboro, many of whom were spoiled by six postseason bids, including four trips to the NCAAs, in the 1980s, the Blue Raiders' return to the national stage can't come soon enough.
Certainly, Davis hopes to reward MTSU's faithful in short order.
"We've gained an identity in the league, we've gained an identity with our players," Davis says. "Now it's time to take the next step."
(Contact Steve Kiggins at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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