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Every couple of years, a new mid-major appears to jump into the upper echelon of college basketball programs outside of the Power 5. There was Gonzaga early at the turn of the century. Butler and Hinkle Magic followed shortly after. Wichita State, VCU, and Dayton all saw sustained success on the sport’s highest stage.
Middle Tennessee and Kermit Davis could be next.
Since joining Conference USA in 2013, the Blue Raiders have accumulated a record of 99-41 (52-18 in C-USA play). They’ve won at least 20 games in three of the four seasons, something they only did twice in the Sun Belt under Davis, and those two seasons happened to be the final two before leaving the Sun Belt in which they won 27 & 28 games. When you take those seasons into consideration, Davis has led Middle Tennessee to a 154-54 record over the past six years.
Since the 2011-12 season, Middle Tennessee has seen levels of success that it hadn’t been able to reach since the late 1980s. The Blue Raiders have won four regular season titles (two Sun Belt, two C-USA), and made three NCAA Tournament appearances, including back-to-back appearances in the last two years.
How have they transitioned from a run of the mill program to March Madness regular? Well, a drastic improvement on the defensive side of the ball is a start.
Prior to 2012, Middle Tennessee never cracked the top-100 in KenPom’s adjusted defense rating (101st in 2005 was the highest). In the six years following, the Blue Raiders have had the following rankings: 41, 28, 49, 124, 85, 53. That’s three top-50 finishes, one just outside, and only one year outside the top-100. Not bad.
Davis has also started to find the right players to fit his system. Guys like Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw came in as lower rated recruits that eventually led the Blue Raiders to an upset over Michigan State in the 2016 Tournament. He’s found talent from the JUCO ranks in guys like Perrin Buford and Darnell Harris. Davis has even managed to bring in talent from Power Five transfers in JaCorey Williams and Nick King. Add in a commitment from K.J. Buffen, a four-star forward in the 2018 class, and you can see how Davis is pushing the program’s talents to new heights.
Many coaches that achieve the kind of success that Davis have in recent years often times leave for a more lucrative position. Not Davis. Following his second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Davis signed his second contract extension in as many years, pushing his compensation to an annual salary of $750,000. With Davis locked up until 2024, and a program that seems to get better by the year, Middle Tennessee could very well be on its way to becoming one of mid-major basketball’s elite programs.
Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference, KenPom, and Verbal Commits.
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