NORMAL — When Andy Kennedy stepped away as Ole Miss head basketball coach before the end of last season, Illinois State cringed. Chances of the Rebels coming to Redbird Arena this season were in jeopardy.
Then Kermit Davis was hired by Ole Miss — and the Rebels definitely were headed to Redbird Arena to complete a home-and-home series.
Davis arrived from Middle Tennessee, where the Blue Raiders gained plenty of national attention by upsetting No. 2-seeded Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
More than anyone, Davis knows what it means for a mid-major such as ISU to have the Rebels in its building for Saturday's 7 p.m. nonconference game. Davis wasn't about to cancel, or buy out, the return game.
"No. 1, I have a lot of respect for Dan (Muller) and just Illinois State," said Davis. "No. 2, no question I have been in the same boat for 16 years and completely understand it. To get an SEC or power-five school to come to your place wasn't easy. I think at Middle Tennessee we maybe did it five times in 16 years. I sure get it."
Ole Miss (5-2) is the first Southeastern Conference school to play at ISU since 1978 when the Rebels came to Horton Field House. ISU entertained another SEC school, Texas A&M, in 2014, but that was during the postseason College Basketball Invitational.
The series with Ole Miss got its start when Muller put out a tweet asking any power-five conference school for a home-and-home series after ISU was snubbed for the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Kennedy agreed, in part because of the relationship each school had with the late Torrey Ward as an assistant coach.
ISU pulled out an improbable 101-97 overtime victory over Ole Miss last December in Oxford, Miss. The Redbirds were down to five guards in the extra session after Milik Yarbrough, Phil Fayne and Taylor Bruninga fouled out.
"I hope the fans come and support us in a game like this," said Muller. "I'm appreciative not only of Andy Kennedy, but Kermit Davis for not canceling the game when he easily could have. I guess you could say it's special (hosting a power-five team) because it rarely happens.
"I want our players to be excited about the opportunity, but as usual treat it like another game and understand we've played bad and have to play better."
ISU (6-4) has dropped its last two games. Wednesday's 94-75 loss at Illinois-Chicago was especially troubling as the Redbirds' defense allowed the Flames to do whatever they wanted offensively. UIC shot 55.7 percent from the field and made 11 3-pointers.
The Redbirds had only seven healthy players in Chicago as Zach Copeland (knee), Matt Chastain (ankle) and Matt Hein (leg) sat out. Muller said Friday each of the trio has practiced in some capacity during the last two days and hopes to have "some combination" of the three available.
Maybe the chance to entertain an SEC school will ignite the Redbirds.
"It's fun to play against a big school like that," said ISU senior William Tinsley. "It will help us come with the right mindset. Last year was a dogfight. People on the bench came in and we didn't fold under pressure and excelled and won the game at the end."
Davis has five returning players from last season's Ole Miss squad and brought in five freshmen. That includes 6-foot-7, 229-pound forward Blake Hinson (9.1 points, 3.1 rebounds) who has started every game.
Ole Miss is led by the guard trio of Breein Tyree (17.9 ppg), Terence Davis (14.7 ppg) and Devontae Schuler (10.0 ppg). The Redbirds have been hurt by high-scoring guard tandems in their last two games.
"We've played a really good nonconference schedule to date. It's been a fun group to come to the gym with," said Davis. "We have some returning guys with good experience. It's been good.
"We have been able to learn, and now we have to learn to win on the road. We had a great opportunity at Butler up five late and didn't do it (losing 83-76). This is another really good opportunity on Saturday."