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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Donovan Sims can still hear the cheers.
When the Murfreesboro native committed to play basketball for his hometown team, he knew what he was getting into at the Murphy Center. A massive Blue Zoo Student section behind one basket, fans in the pull out bleachers on the track and a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament every single year.
“It was a crazy experience, especially with everything going on the past two or three seasons leading up to me coming into college,” Sims said of his recruitment process. “The tournament runs, Michigan State, Minnesota, all those big games. Knowing I had to get better, get stronger, get more adjusted to how the college game would be.”
It’s those memories of the great Blue Raider teams he saw growing up, that he got a chance to be a part of at the tail end of Kermit Davis’ tenure as head coach, and that he gets to be a part of now under Nick McDevitt, that have stuck with Sims through the personal challenges he’s faced at Middle Tennessee. Whether adjusting his play style season to season, or battling through injuries that occasionally slowed him down, his loyalty to his school, his city’s school, his family’s school, never wavered.
“Don’t be made of the right stuff,” McDevitt said. “He is Middle Tennessee. He is Murfreesboro.”
There was never another option for Sims when Davis offered him a scholarship to Middle Tennessee. An all-region and all-district pass first point guard at Blackman High, Sims helped lead the Blaze to a TSSAA semifinal appearance as a junior. And after he was recruited to MTSU, that opened a lot of doors in the Murphy Center that most prep recruits don’t get to see.
“I got to come play pickup with the guys a little bit, which is something most high school kids going into college wouldn’t get to do,” Sims explained. “I’d get done with school, drive over here (in) ten minutes and I’d get that experience before that became my lifestyle.”
When he finally became an official member of the program in 2017 at “6-1, maybe 140 pounds,” Sims had no expectations of playing a lot right away. He knew from those pick up sessions he needed to bulk up, to adjust to the speed of the college game. Thankfully for Sims, however, Davis only needed him to be himself when he was called upon.
“He told me before the season ‘there might be some games you’re playing two minutes, you might play zero minutes, you might play 20,'” Sims said. “And that’s how my freshman year was. All those times being on the bench, I was honestly just learning the whole season.”
Modesty aside, Sims was a key cog for a Blue Raider team that won the C-USA regular season title and went to the NIT, averaging 1.7 points, 1.4 assists and 1.1 rebounds per game in 28 contests while starting four of the team’s final six games. He was a distributor first, which was fine with Sims, given the talent he had around him on that 2017-18 squad with seniors like Nick King, Giddy Potts and Brandon Walters leading the way. It did mean that when Sims did put up a shot, it was usually a pretty good one, Sims shot 51.6 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three as a freshman.
But that pass-first play style would need to change, as the departure of Davis for Ole Miss at the end of the season led to a flurry of movement within every aspect of the program, as players both transferred away from the team or just left outright. When the dust finally settled and Nick McDevitt was in place, Sims said they had maybe eight or nine guys ready to play in the gym that summer, only four of whom he thought were on scholarship.
So when McDevitt asked Sims to carry more of the scoring load, he stepped up with a breakout sophomore campaign. After attempting just 31 shots in 2017-18, he attempted 292 field goals in 2018-19, boosting his per game averages to 11.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 steals in the process. He led the Blue Raiders in both assists and steals and was second in total scoring.
The usage took its toll, as Sims missed the final three regular season games due to a leg injury, and then hurt his elbow in summer workouts enough to affect the confidence of his shot. And with both CJ Jones and Antonio Green now full-fledged members of the rotation for his junior season, Sims once again had to adjust his play style to a more balanced distributor type role.
By the time he tore his meniscus late in his true senior season, Sims had faced a lot of adversity just in his own mental game, where he leaned on his family and support system to get him out of his rut and keep his mind right.
“I had a little bit of a different role every single year,” Sims said. “That kind of messed with me a little mentally, because I didn’t know who I had to be that year. I’ve had to adjust to it, but I’m fine with adjusting to whatever the role is so we can win games. I just had to work through that and believe in myself. I always had people believe in me.”
McDevitt, for his part, was grateful to have a stabilizing presence like Sims on his roster during that transitional period as he slowly built the team’s numbers back up.
“It speaks to the kind of person he is and the kind of player he is,” McDevitt said. “Some people don’t have the skillset to do multiple things from one year to the next. He can go from having a big impact scoring eight to having a big impact scoring 25 if he has to.”
All the adversity during his four year career (and we haven’t touched on COVID-19 or the fact the team’s record continued to slip each season throughout Sims’ career), it might leave a neutral wondering that, given the free year of eligibility given to all NCAA athletes due to the pandemic, why stay at Middle Tennessee? For so many players across the country, a change of scenery might’ve been the spark a player was looking for.
Safe to say, that’s not the way Donovan Sims operates, at least not when it comes to Middle Tennessee. No matter how tough things go personally, how tough things got within the program, Sims knew he wanted to be a part of the next chapter in Blue Raider basketball. So when he graduated in 2021 with his degree in Leisure Sport and Tourism Studies (while making the C-USA Commissioner Honor Roll three times as an undergrad), Sims knew he wanted to stay.
“I love being here in Murfreesboro, I love being around the people,” Sims said. “My whole life’s kind of been about basketball, I played at each level here, so it’s kind of cool to just live here and living this dream that I’ve had, being in this gym, this town with these people.
“The BRAA, those people that support us, they’ve stuck around. These past couple of years have been kind of rough, but these fans have stuck around for us. When you have people that do that kind of stuff for you and you have people in your corner, you want to do the same thing for them.”
Sims’ patience and loyalty has been rewarded in 2022, with the graduate student just six points away from the 34th member of MT’s 1,000-point club heading into Thursday’s game against Old Dominion. His partnership with Josh Jeffersonironically a one-year graduate transfer like Sims could’ve been, has been key in sparking the Blue Raiders excellent start to C-USA play, where an opportunistic defense and new found depth has given MT an inside track to the top of the C-USA East.
“He understands what this league is, how hard it is to win in this league,” McDevitt said. “He knows the history of this place. He understands the meaning of the rivalry between Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.”
Off the court, Sims is thankful to be able to take some classes in real estate, the field he wants to go into when “the ball stops bouncing.” The extra year at MT, thanks in part to the BRAA, has given him the chance to keep learning and preparing for a long career after his playing days are over.
“I’d rather spend this time being blessed to be on scholarship with this extra year we’ve been granted to learn for what I really want to do with my future,” Sims said. “Some guys do their four years of college and they don’t know what they want to do, it’s always been basketball. So it’s given me a bigger picture on life.”
Until that ball stops bouncing, however, Sims is going to enjoy the ride, enjoy being a part of a team with some winning mojo again. Because he knows what comes when this team, this program, this university is all on the right track.
“I’ve seen what it looks like winning here for this team, for this program, for this city and it feels really good,” Sims said. “I just want to bring that feeling back to Murfreesboro and the Murphy Center.”