As Kadar Waller walks around campus, he notices a different energy. When he goes to class, the junior guard sees posters of the team’s players. And when he comes to the team’s gym, he sees his teammates working out at any time of the day.
That might seem like small, relatively innocuous observations for many basketball programs, but for the state of Mississippi Valley, it’s remarkable.
In recent years, these posters around campus have become obsolete, showing players from previous seasons. But now the athletic department has a photographer who attends games and most practices, according to senior guard Terry Collins.
And the constant flow of players in and out of the gym? This is new too.
“There’s a higher sense of urgency,” Waller said. “Everyone is always in the gym. There’s no time when you go to the gym and the guys aren’t in there to get extra shots.”
Every little step counts for the state of Mississippi Valley.
The program has been arguably the country’s worst in recent years and is one of the more challenging jobs in Division I. The Delta Devils are the only team in the country to finish in the bottom five nationally on KenPom.com in every one of the past five game times. They have finished bottom in SWAC for each of the last four seasons and they are 4-48 in the last two campaigns.
However, there must be a context. In a 2019 survey conducted by Stadium, SWAC coaches considered it the toughest job in the league – ranking bottom in terms of both budget/resources and recruitment base.
Despite the many challenges facing the historically black university, it’s a program with a significant amount of men’s basketball heritage. Based in the state’s northwest Mississippi Delta, the Delta Devils have competed in five NCAA tournaments and won six conference championships, most recently both in 2012. They’ve also produced two head coaches, both of whom have had enough success to drop out of the league to a bigger job : James Green, who went to the NIT and NCAA tournaments before leaving for Jacksonville State, and Sean Woods, who went to the NCAA tournament in 2012 before being hired by Morehead State.
How is the program returning to the successes of just a decade ago?
The first big step was hiring a head coach who was knowledgeable about both winning at Mississippi Valley State and winning at programs with financial difficulties. Growing up 90 minutes south in Jackson, Mississippi, George Ivory was a basketball legend at MVSU. Ivory competed in the 1986 NCAA tournament and earned nearly every single honor before ending his career as the program’s all-time leader in assists and steals.
George Ivory (class of ’88) is introduced as the 12th head coach🏀 at Valley#MVSU #HBCU #HBCUsMatter #HailToThee #ValleyInMotion #HBCUMade #HBCUnity #ValleyOfScholars #ValleyOfLegends pic.twitter.com/Gk8HUfFD9f
— MVSU Fanatics (@MVSUFanatics) March 17, 2022
As an assistant coach, Ivory went to the NCAA tournament in Grambling and Mississippi Valley State – before taking over as head coach at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, where he led the Golden Lions to their first NCAA tournament in more than four decades. They finished in the SWAC top three four times during Ivory’s tenure. The time at the UAPB is particularly noteworthy; In the aforementioned stadium poll of the most challenging jobs in SWAC, it finished just one point ahead of Valley.
If there’s a coach to bring Mississippi Valley State back to the NCAA tournament, Ivory is the top pick — and the reason he was hired to replace Lindsey Hunter in March.
“The outstanding thing is the experience,” said sporting director Hakim McClellan. “He is an experienced veterinarian. He understands. He was at the championship game; he was in competitive programs. He has attended programs similar to ours in funding the championship. He knows what it means to recruit. He adapts. If you can adapt and make the best of it and still make it through the tournament and be competitive, that’s one of the greatest things. You must be able to compete at the highest level.
The Valley acquisition is more than just a job for Ivory. And McClellan. Both men attended school and were student-athletes for the Delta Devils, with McClellan playing soccer and winning track meets just over a decade ago. Ivory was part of successful basketball programs while McClellan was in school when the program went to the NCAA tournament.
“What we’re trying to convey is the past, how our pride has been for basketball, the entire athletic department.”
George Ivory, Mississippi Valley State head coach
“There’s a different sense of pride in the program,” Ivory said. “What we’re trying to convey is the past, how our pride has been for basketball, the entire athletic department.”
“It’s very important to us,” McClellan added. “We know it can be successful.”
What would success look like for the Delta Devils?
For Ivory, it builds his program in much the same way his former college coach Lafayette Stribling built his rosters en route to three SWAC championships and three NCAA tournaments. We recruit players who come out of successful high school programs, players who go into college with a winning mentality.
And when Ivory gets the players, McClellan wants to make sure they have everything they need to compete for titles. He said he will pit Valley’s facility against any program at SWAC, but he knows the athletic department has catching up to do in other areas. The motto? “Increase V-State.”
“It was a variety of things. Change of coaches, funding – all in all, we didn’t have the consistency to be successful,” said McClellan. “All the money in the world with the wrong mindset, nothing ever really happens.
“If you’re talking about grants and salaries, we’re missing that. And that’s why I’m here. I need to make this change. … We have to show people the history and the greatness of our institution. We have to set salaries, we need to set scholarships, we need academic support resources. We must support our student athletes. Academics, academic labs, student-athlete development, mental health, student welfare. We want to continue to be successful and off the pitch.”
When SWAC’s preseason poll was released earlier this month, Mississippi Valley State was unsurprisingly picked to finish bottom of the league again. Instead of ignoring the negative expectations, Ivory embraced them — albeit briefly. He posted the rankings to the team’s group chat, made sure the players were aware and brought it up in practice later in the day.
The Delta Devils players don’t need a reminder.
“When I look at it, it’s pretty sad,” said Collins, the senior guard.
“They’re already writing us off,” Waller added.
Valley players say the emphasis has been placed on winning games in practice. Not just playing well, not just taking small steps in their development – but making profits.
Ivory wants Valley to be a factor in SWAC – and fast.
“We want to fight for a championship,” he said. “We want to be very competitive in the league. It sets goals for me and imposes them on me. You want to make sure the guys are very, very competitive. Every time you compete, the goal is a championship. … Talking to the players, they understand where we’ve been over the last couple of years. We talk about it, we let them know where we’re going. We can’t worry about that anymore. Our goal — [a championship] maybe not happen, but we want to go this way.
“In a competitive world, it’s all about winning games,” he added. “We emphasize that now.”
The team’s top three scorers are gone from last season, but a trio of players with years of experience are making a return. Collins (9.7 PPG) is the headliner, but starter Daniel Umoh (2.7 PPG) and key reserve Waller (5.8 PPG) are also back. Among a large group of newcomers, Ivory is particularly excited for Alvin “AJ” Stredic, whom he coached at Pine Bluff, and security guard Danny Washington, one of several junior college transfers to join the list.
“We’re a good size, we’re really tall and everything,” Waller said. “A lot of people can take shots. What I’ve seen is a good team of goalscorers. We have to implement that. We have a lot of talent, we can score goals, we can defend. It’s about putting everything together and making it work.” being tough and a dirty team.”
MVSU Men’s Basketball Coach George Ivory has named Trasity Totten as one of his assistants for the upcoming season. Totten shares her excitement at the groundbreaking opportunity. Read more: https://t.co/ELmnQIjvR0#MVSU1950 #ElevateVState pic.twitter.com/nIFLEF4DPM
— Mississippi Valley State Athletics (@MVSUDevilSports) July 18, 2022
Along with the roster overhaul, Ivory retained assistant coach Alan Perry, hired longtime junior collegiate coach Derrick Fears, and also brought in Trasity Totten, a 23-year-old former basketball player at Pine Bluff and one of the few women’s coaches at the men’s collegiate Division I Basketball
Ivory, McClellan and the players are working towards a renewed emphasis on rallying support and energy for the men’s basketball program in the community. They want the people of Northwest Mississippi to get excited about the Delta Devils again.
Mississippi Valley State held its Midnight Madness celebrations earlier this month – “Valley Madness.” There was a play between staff and Greek life, and the program provided food for the first 300 in attendance. The team attended church as a group last Sunday. Ivory said he’s noticed an excitement when he goes out to eat around town, and Collins said the team has a lot more campus engagement this fall.
“Word got around in a positive way,” said Waller.
Ivory wants to get the message out: hey, we’re trying to flip this thing.
Championships may not happen overnight, but progress is possible.
With that mission in mind, Ivory summed up past, present and future: “We only have one place to go — and that’s upstairs.”
https://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/34979454/what-toughest-job-men-college-basketball What is the toughest job in men’s college basketball?