Photo by Devin Grimes / MTSU Sidelines
On March 1, the Middle Tennessee State basketball team was on the top of the mid-major basketball world. They were ranked for the first time in school history. They had the first AP All-American in school history on the roster. And most importantly, they were fresh off of an 82-64 bludgeoning of arch-rival Western Kentucky on national television to secure another C-USA regular season title.
Thousands of Middle Tennessee basketball faithful milled around the court to watch a jubilant Kermit Davis cut down the net. Everyone was soaking in the championship aura. Ahead was the conference tournament, followed by the “big dance,” the NCAA Tournament, and True Blue fans were considering the possibilities, pondering just how far this talented team, perhaps the most talented team in Blue Raider history, could go.
But the dreams turned nightmarish pretty quickly.
The once-invincible Blue Raiders crashed back to earth and were humbled after a stunning loss to Marshall at home two days later. Less than a week following that loss, MTSU was stunned again in the first round of the C-USA Tournament by Southern Miss, a team that the Blue Raiders beat twice in the regular season by an average scoring margin of 15 points. The two crushing losses sealed their postseason fate as the once mighty Blue Raiders failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
To make matters worse, Davis accepted the head coaching job at Ole Miss following the team’s first-round National Invitation Tournament victory against Vermont.
Once the 2017-18 season finally ended following a loss at Louisville in the second round of the NIT, senior leaders Giddy Potts, Nick King, Brandon Walters and Ed Simpson graduated. Their departures were expected.
But then came the most damaging exodus: junior shooting guard Antwain Johnson transferred to Buffalo, sophomore point guard Tyrik Dixon transferred to Missouri State, junior guard David Simmons left the program and freshman reserve Davion Thomas transferred to Troy.
Capping the upheaval, Davis gave an emotional, tearful goodbye in the Blue Raider locker room.
In the span of less than three weeks, the cream of the crop in C-USA was without two of the winningest players in school history, the first All-American in school history, it’s top six leading scorers as well as the head coach that built the program to the heights it experienced during his 16 years in Murfreesboro.
So when newly hired Nick McDevitt took the podium at the Murphy Center on March 27 to be introduced as the new head coach, he faced a challenge that no head coach wants to face in their first months on the job: building a roster from the ground up.
“For a while, it was like running around with your hair on fire,” McDevitt said with a chuckle from his brand new office on the second floor of the Murphy Center. He recalled the pressure of moving his family, recruiting trips and juggling a thousand other details. And oh yeah, the birth of his first daughter, Katie, occurred during that time, too.
But given the obstacles, McDevitt and his staff took to the recruiting trail, looking to rebuild the once dominant C-USA powerhouse with only three scholarship players left from last season’s team and only one month to do it.
Given the summer departures of Johnson, Dixon, Simmons and Thomas, the brand new staff had to ramp up recruiting with little time and available players. McDevitt and his staff of assistant coaches that he brought from UNC-Asheville and UNC-Greensboro were not only seeking high-level talent but talented guys that fit the style of play that they want
“We looked for guys that are versatile and multidimensional, both on the offensive side and the defensive side,” McDevitt explained. “It’s my philosophy that if you got guys that can do multiple things at a time on the floor, it just gives you so many options as a team and a coaching staff to beat different kinds of teams.”
But given the circumstances, that posed a colossal challenge. When given that little time to recruit guys that late in the recruiting process, the new coaching staff had to exhaust all options.
“When it happens that late, it’s always kind of tricky,” said Sean Dixon, the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. “We were kind of knocking on all doors and looking at all different types of scouting services and calling every coach and previous player that you know … It was a process for sure in terms of just finding a list and finding guys that fit our style of play.”
For Dixon, the challenge of recruiting is not over yet. After frantically trying to find high-school recruits from the 2018 class to bring to Murfreesboro, Dixon had to pivot his attention towards recruiting prospects from the 2019 class.
“We feel like we’re almost caught up,” Dixon said as he sat beside a whiteboard full of
names of potential recruits as well as a printed photoshopped photo of a high school prospect on an ESPN The Magazine cover. “This is a kid we’re recruiting in the 2019 class. He was here for a visit this past weekend. Hopefully, he signs to give us some more depth.”
So far, the staff was able to land three incoming freshmen, Anthony Crump, Junior Farquhar and Jayce Johnson, while on the recruiting trail, but to McDevitt, the biggest victories of off-season recruiting didn’t involve getting just high-school recruits but plucking away transfers from other Division One programs.
Despite not being eligible for the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules, McDevitt strongly emphasized the future impacts of Missouri State transfer Reggie Scurry and Arkansas transfer C.J. Jones, two players who are versatile and can defend multiple positions on the floor.
While recruiting enough players to field a team was difficult enough, the hardest part will be getting the new players properly acquainted with each other and building good team chemistry to compete in an improving C-USA. Sophomore point guard Donovan Sims is one of three returning scholarship players from last season’s team and is optimistic about what he has seen so far in summer workouts and practices but understands that this can be a trying process.
“It’s been different,” Sims said. “It’s hard to build chemistry. Some days have been real good, and some have just been OK. We all have to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses so we can help each other out … Right now, the ball really isn’t moving like it should right now because of newer guys and a new offense. So it’s tough. But like I said, it’ll get better.”
McDevitt, Dixon and the players signed thus far now face a great opportunity to not only compete to win C-USA titles in the future but build legacies of their own. While the wild goose chase of college basketball recruiting and program rebuilding is coming to an end, McDevitt still wants to be able to enjoy the ride that comes with it.
“I think it’s important to enjoy the process,” McDevitt said. “It’s been a lot over the last several months, but being around young men and getting to know new families, new players and putting together a new team is just part of the joy of coaching.”
To contact Sports Editor David Chamberlain, email firstname.lastname@example.org.