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

When Kadar Waller walks around campus, he notices a different energy. When he’s going to class, the junior guard sees posters of the team’s players. And when he gets to the team’s gym, no matter the time of day, he sees teammates working out.

Those might seem like small, relatively innocuous observations for a lot of basketball programs, but for Mississippi Valley State, it’s noteworthy.

For the past couple of years, those posters around campus were outdated, featuring players from seasons past. But now, according to senior guard Terry Collins, the athletic department has a photographer who attends games and most practices.

And the steady flow of players in and out of the gym? That’s new, too.

“There’s a higher sense of urgency,” Waller said. “Everybody’s always in the gym. There’s not a time you walk into the gym and guys aren’t in there getting up extra shots.”

For Mississippi Valley State, each little step matters.

The program has been, arguably, the worst in the country 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 at KenPom.com in each of the past five seasons. They’ve finished last in the SWAC each of the past four seasons and they’re 4-48 over the past two campaigns.

There needs to be context, however. In a 2019 poll conducted by Stadium, SWAC coaches considered it the most difficult job in the league — ranking it last in both budget/resources and recruiting base.

Despite the many challenges for the historically Black university, it’s 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 been to five NCAA tournaments and won six conference championships, last winning both in 2012. They have also produced two head coaches who both achieved enough success to move 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 2012 NCAA tournament before getting hired at Morehead State.

How does the program get back to the successes of even just a decade ago?

The first major step was to hire a head coach with intimate knowledge of both winning at Mississippi Valley State and winning at programs with financial difficulties. George Ivory grew up 90 minutes south in 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 assists and steals leader.

As an assistant coach, Ivory went to the NCAA tournament at Grambling and Mississippi Valley State — before taking over as the 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 top three of the SWAC four separate times during Ivory’s tenure. The time at UAPB is particularly noteworthy; in the aforementioned Stadium poll about the most challenging jobs in the SWAC, it finished just one point ahead of Valley.

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

“The thing that stands out is the experience,” athletic director Hakim McClellan said. “He’s a seasoned vet. He gets it. He’s been to the championship game; he’s been in competitive programs. He’s taken programs that are similar to us in funding to the championship. He knows what it is to recruit. He adapts. When you can adapt and make the best of it, and still make the tourney and be competitive, that’s one of the biggest things. You have to be able to compete at the highest level.”

Taking over at Valley is more than just a job for Ivory. And McClellan. Both men attended the school and were student-athletes for the Delta Devils, with McClellan playing football and winning track meets just over a decade ago. Ivory was part of winning basketball programs, while McClellan was at the school when the program went to the NCAA tournament.

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

“It’s very close and dear to us,” McClellan added. “We know it can be successful.”

What would success look like for the Delta Devils?

For Ivory, it’s building his program in a similar way to how his former college coach, Lafayette Stribling, built his rosters en route to three SWAC championships and three NCAA tournaments. Recruiting players who come from winning high school programs, players who enter college with a winning mindset.

And if Ivory gets the players, McClellan wants to make sure they have everything needed to compete for titles. He said he’ll put Valley’s facility up against any program in the SWAC, but he knows the athletic department has some catching up to do in other areas. The motto? “Elevate V State.”

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

“When you talk about scholarships and salaries, that’s where we’re lacking. And that’s why I’m here. I have to make that change. … We need to show people the history and the greatness of our institution. We got to fix the salaries, we got to fix the scholarships, we need resources for academic support. We have to support our student-athletes. Academics, academic labs, student-athlete development, mental health, student welfare. We want to be successful on and off the court.”

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

The Delta Devils’ players don’t need reminding.

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

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

Valley players say there has been an emphasis on winning games in practice. 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. That’s setting my goals, and putting it on me. You want to make sure the guys are very, very competitive. Anytime you compete, the goal is a championship. … When talking to the players, they understand where we were the last couple of years. We talk about that, we let them know where we’re trying to go. We can’t worry about that anymore. Our goal — [a championship] might not happen, but we want to go that route.

“In a competitive world, everything is about trying to win games,” he added. “That’s what we’re stressing now.”

With the team’s struggles of the last few seasons and its top three scorers gone from 2021-22, a slow start was expected. The Delta Devils are 0-4, but they hung tough with Hawaii before a second-half run put it out of their reach, and also led Eastern Washington in the final minutes before losing by eight.

Terry Collins (13.8 PPG) was the top returnee and he leads the team in scoring. Among a deep group of newcomers, Ivory was particularly excited about Alvin “AJ” Stredic (11.0 PPG), who he coached at Pine Bluff, and guard Danny Washington (7.0 PPG), one of several junior college transfers joining the roster, and both have backed up their head coach’s outlook.

“We have good size, we’re real long and everything,” Waller said. “A lot of people can make shots. What I’ve seen is a good scoring team. We need to put that into effect. We have a lot of talent, we can score, we can defend. It’s putting it all together and working hard and being a grimey team.”

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

Ivory, McClellan and the players are working toward a renewed emphasis on drumming up support and energy for the men’s basketball program in the community. They want people of northwest Mississippi excited about the Delta Devils again.

Mississippi Valley State held its Midnight Madness festivities — “Valley Madness” — in October. There was a staff vs. Greek life game and the program provided food for the first 300 people in attendance. The team attended church as a group on a recent Sunday. Ivory said he’s noticed an excitement when he goes out to eat in town, and Collins said there’s a lot more campus involvement from the team this fall.

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

Ivory wants to spread the message: Hey, we’re trying to turn this thing around.

Championships might not happen overnight, but progress is attainable.

With that mission in mind, Ivory summed up the past, present and future: “We ain’t got but one place to go — and that’s up.”

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