What’s the toughest job in men’s college basketball?

When 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 arrives at the team gym, no matter what time of day, he sees his teammates training.

These may seem like relatively innocuous little observations for many basketball programs, but for Mississippi Valley State, it’s remarkable.

For the past two years, these posters around campus have been outdated, featuring players from past seasons. But now, according to senior goaltender Terry Collins, the athletic department has a photographer who attends games and most practices.

What about the constant stream of players entering and leaving the gym? It’s new too.

“There’s a higher sense of urgency,” Waller said. “Everyone is still in the gym. There’s not a moment when you walk into the gym and the guys aren’t there to take extra hits.”

For Mississippi Valley State, every little step counts.

The program has been, arguably, the worst in the nation in recent years and is one of the toughest jobs in Division I. The Delta Devils are the only team in the nation to finish in the bottom five nationally on KenPom .com in each of the past five seasons. They’ve finished last in the SWAC in each of the past four seasons and are 4-48 the past two seasons.

However, you need a context. In a 2019 poll by Stadium, SWAC coaches considered it the toughest job in the league, ranking it last in terms of budget/resources and recruiting base.

Despite the many challenges for the historically black university, it is a program with a considerable amount of men’s basketball tradition. Located in the Mississippi Delta in the northwest part of the state, the Delta Devils have appeared in five NCAA tournaments and won six conference championships, last winning both in 2012. They have also produced two head coaches who were both successful enough to step out of the league into more important work: James Green, who went to NIT and NCAA tournaments before leaving for Jacksonville State, and Sean Woods, who is went to the 2012 NCAA Tournament before being hired at Morehead State.

How does the program revive the successes of barely ten years ago?

The first major step was to hire a head coach with intimate knowledge of winning at Mississippi Valley State and winning in financially challenged programs. George Ivory grew up 90 minutes south of Jackson, Mississippi, and was a basketball legend at MVSU. Ivory went to the 1986 NCAA Tournament and received nearly every individual honor before ending his career as the program’s all-time leader in assists and steals.

As an assistant coach, Ivory competed in the NCAA Tournament at Grambling and Mississippi Valley State, before becoming head coach at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, where he guided 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 spent at UAPB is particularly noteworthy; in the aforementioned Stadium poll of SWAC’s toughest jobs, he finished just one point ahead of Valley.

If there’s a coach who’s going to bring Mississippi Valley State back to the NCAA tournament, Ivory is the best bet β€” and the reason he was hired in March to replace Lindsey Hunter.

“What stands out is the experience,” said sporting director Hakim McClellan. “He’s a seasoned veteran. He understands. He’s been to the league game, he’s been in competitive programs. He’s gone through similar programs to us to fund the championship. He knows what it’s like to recruit. It adapts. When you can adapt and make the most of it, while still making the tournament and being competitive, that’s one of the most important things. You have to be able to compete at the most high level.

Taking over at Valley 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 football and winning track competitions just over a decade ago. Ivory was part of winning basketball programs, while McClellan was in school when the program went to the NCAA Tournament.

“What we’re trying to instill is the past, how proud our pride was for basketball, the whole athletic department.”

George Ivory, Mississippi Valley State head coach

“There’s a different sense of pride about the program,” Ivory said. “What we’re trying to instill is the past, how proud our pride was for basketball, the whole athletic department.”

“It’s very near and dear to us,” added McClellan. “We know it can succeed.”

What would success look like for the Delta Devils?

For Ivory, he’s building his program the same way his former college coach, Lafayette Stribling, built his rosters en route to three SWAC championships and three NCAA tournaments. Recruit players from winning high school programs, players entering college with a winning mindset.

And if Ivory gets the players, McClellan wants to make sure they have what it takes to compete for the titles. He said he would put the Valley facility against any SWAC program, but he knows the athletic department has some catching up to do in other areas. Currency? “Raise the V state.”

“It was a multitude of things. Coaching changes, funding – in all areas we didn’t have the consistency to be successful,” McClellan said. “All the money in the world with the wrong mindset, nothing ever really happens.

“When you talk about scholarships and salaries, that’s where we fall short. And that’s why I’m here. I have 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 resources for academic support. We need to support our student-athletes. Academics, university labs, student-athlete development, mental health, student welfare. students. We want to succeed on and off the pitch.”

When the SWAC preseason poll was released last month, Mississippi Valley State was unsurprisingly picked to finish last in the league yet again. Instead of ignoring negative expectations, Ivory leaned into it β€” if only briefly. He sent the standings in the team’s group chat, making sure the players were aware, then brought it up in training later that day.

Delta Devils players don’t need a recall.

“When I look at that, it’s pretty sad,” said Collins, the main goaltender.

“They’re already writing us off,” Waller added.

Valley players say the focus has been on winning games in training. Not just playing well, not just taking small steps in their development, but getting wins.

Ivory wants Valley to become a factor in the SWAC – and quickly.

“We want to compete for a championship,” he said. “We want to be very competitive in the league. It’s setting my goals and putting them on me. You want to make sure the guys are very, very competitive. Every time you compete, the goal is a championship… When we talk to the players, they understand where we’ve been for the past two years. We talk about it, we let them know where we’re trying to go. We can’t worry about it anymore. Our goal — [a championship] may not happen, but we want to go down this road.

“In a competitive world, it’s all about trying to win games,” he added. “That’s what we insist on now.”

With the team struggling in recent seasons and its top three scorers gone from 2021-22, a slow start was expected. The Delta Devils are 0-4, but held off Hawaii before a second-half run put them out of reach, and also led Eastern Washington in the final minutes before losing by eight.

Terry Collins (13.8 PPG) was the top returnee and leads the team in scoring. Among a deep group of newcomers, Ivory was particularly keen on Alvin “AJ” Stredic (11.0 PPG), whom he coached at Pine Bluff, and guard Danny Washington (7.0 PPG), one of many transfers from junior colleges joining the list, and both have backed their head coach’s prospects.

β€œWe have a good height, we are very long and everything,” Waller said. “A lot of people can shoot. What I’ve seen is a good team of goalscorers. We have to put that into practice. We have a lot of talent, we can score, we can defend. It’s all put together and work hard and be a filthy team.”

In addition to the roster revamp, Ivory has retained assistant coach Alan Perry, hired longtime junior college coach Derrick Fears and also brought in Trasity Totten, a 23-year-old former women’s basketball player. years at Pine Bluff and one of the few female coaches on the men’s side. Division I college basketball.

Ivory, McClellan and the players are working to focus support and energy for the men’s basketball program in the community. They want the people of Northwest Mississippi to be excited about the Delta Devils again.

The Mississippi Valley State held its Midnight Madness festivities – “Valley Madness” – in October. There was a match between staff and Greek life and the program provided food for the first 300 people to attend. The team went to church as a group on a recent Sunday. Ivory said he’s noticed excitement when he goes out to eat on the town, and Collins said the team is getting a lot more involved on campus this fall.

“There’s been a lot of positivity,” Waller said.

Ivory wants to get the message out: Hey, we’re trying to turn things around.

The championships may not happen overnight, but progress is achievable.

With that mission in mind, Ivory summed up the past, present and future: “We only have one place to go – and that’s it.”

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