It's the dawn of a new era for the Central Michigan men's basketball program as they begin their first year under head coach Keno Davis, who replaces Ernie Zeigler. And the coaching switch is just one of many changes within the program, as only five players will return and a revamped run and gun offense takes hold. First and foremost on Davis's plate was filling out his roster, and despite a late start in recruiting, he appears to have players that will fit his system.
"When I got the job back in April, one of the biggest question marks for us as a staff, was what type of talent are we going to be able to bring in so late in the recruiting process? But I knew when I had the opportunity to take over here at Central Michigan, that the state of Michigan was ripe with talent and had very well coached young men," said Davis. "We were fortunate this year, whether it's like this every year, that there was some very good, quality players right from this area and the state of Michigan. So I always feel that when you get commitments or get kids to sign that you always like them, or you wouldn't sign them in the first place. But I have been very impressed with the group as a whole and individually with some guys, not only with how good they can become, but how good they are going to be as freshman or first year players."
CMU's lone returning starter from last year will be 6-foot-6 forward Olivier Mbaigoto. Nicknamed O.V., he averaged 7.1 PPG and 4.8 RPG while starting 24 of 31 games. Joining him as returning players will be guards Finis Craddock, Austin Keel, and walk-on Luke Wiest. The return of 6-foot-8 forward Zach Saylor was a surprise, as he made the decision to rejoin after the summer, but much needed for a team lacking in size. But with only a handful of guys returning, CMU will have to rely on fresh faces, including JUCO transfer DeAndray Buckley , who came signed out of Indian Hills C.C.
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"DeAndray is one of those players we are waiting to see how good he becomes. He has had some injury problems, but he continues to rehab and we feel he could be an important part on this year's ball club, even though he hasn't had the amount of reps or time on the court as others."
Among the team's biggest surprises has been a pair of newcomer point guards.
"Chris Fowler, who had been at (Detroit) Country Day then down at IMG, at the point guard position, and Kyle Randall. When you look at those players, we knew we were going to have trouble bringing in the size and strength, and often times the bigger players go earlier in the recruiting process. But we needed point guards, and to compete this year we needed guys who could handle the ball and lead the team. Those two have definitely exceeded my high expectations of them so far."
For a team lacking in size, the ability for post players to stretch the floor will be a major key. Davis feels as though he has that skill set in the 6-foot-8 John Simons and the 6-foot-7 Blake Hibbitts. Simons finished 3rd in the Mr. Basketball voting after averaging 28 PPG, 10 RPG and 2.5 APG at Cadillac (Mich.) HS, while Hibbits averaged 17 PPG.
"You wouldn't know they are freshman by the way they shoot the ball," added Davis. "They are going to be a real tough matchup problem for bigger, stronger players that have to try and defend them on the outside. Then for us on the defensive end, we have to be able to gameplan and figure out how we can defend bigger, stronger teams."
But in year one, the team's best defense might be the offense. Davis is known for his high scoring teams and he will inject some energy into an offense that was often times stagnant over the past few years. He won National Coach of the Year honors in 2008 after leading Drake to a 28-5 record before taking the head coaching job at Providence. During the 2009-10 season at Providence, his team averaged 82.4 points per game, one of the highest marks in the NCAA that year. For a team that averaged just 61.9 points per game in 2011-12, the offense will be a welcome change.
"Not only do I want to play up-tempo offensively and defensively, but our team is built to do that," added Davis on the makeup of his team. "We don't have the players to play in a 40 or 50 point game and slow down. We have guys that can push the ball, all of our guys can run, all of our guys can shoot. And not just shoot from inside of the free throw line, we're going to be a really good three point shooting team. We're going to be able to put pressure on the defense by spreading the court"
"Defensively we know we can't just win with offense. Knowing that we are going to be a full court pressing team or a three quarter pressing team to get the score up into the 90's or 100's. I think that will be exciting not just for our team, but for the fans and students. I think it will also be exciting for recruits as they are able to come in and watch us practice or play, it's going to be a style that will attract some great student athletes to Mount Pleasant."
Aiding his short tenure at Central Michigan has been a new NCAA rule change that allowed college coaches two hours per day or eight hours per week of organized activity with their team in the summer. Before, incoming freshman would enroll in the second phase of summer classes with only pickup ball as an option. The rule change, just passed in January, was nothing short of a blessing for a CMU team needing to merge so many new faces.
"Since we started our summer workouts, our team has come a long way," said Davis. "I think our players and staff knew they had the opportunity, for the first time this year, to have a couple of hours each week in the summer couldn't have come at a better time for us and our program. We knew when we stepped on the court it was going to be a learning process for us. But our young players and our returning players have worked extremely hard, and you add in those summer workouts to our ten day minicamp we were able to have in August, and now to have group and team workouts, we are a different ball club."
"That doesn't mean we have arrived or are ready to step out on the court and compete in the MAC, but it does mean we have a chance to compete if we continue to improve. I've really like what I've been able to see so far."
Central Michigan will open up the season in less than a month when they host Lake Superior State at McGuirk Arena on November 7th for an exhibition game. The real test will come in the non-conference portion of the schedule, including games at Iowa, Charlotte, Pepperdine and Michigan. CMU will also take part in the Utah Thanksgiving Tournament that features Wright State and Idaho State in addition to Utah, as well as the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitation with Nebraska, UTEP and Arkansas Pine-Bluff. While he believes his young team will not be outworked and is exceeding expectations, he was not shy when asked if his Chippewas were ready for their early season tests.
"No," said Davis with a laugh. "I don't think we are ready for our non-conference schedule. It's a tougher schedule than I would have liked, but scheduling takes place a lot earlier, like recruiting, and when we had the opportunity to play in games against Michigan, play in tournaments at Pac 12 member Utah, or down in El Paso, we felt like the experience would really help us down the road. That's in year two and year three with our staff, but also by the time the MAC schedule comes around."
Time will tell whether Davis is the right fit for CMU, and his first year should be taken with a grain of salt considering the lack of returning players and reliance on freshman. Size figures to be an early problem, as the team features only three scholarship players who are 6-foot-7 or taller, but the up-tempo offense figures to be high scoring and exciting. And despite not playing a single game yet, Davis has already secured three commitments for the 2013 recruiting class in F Nick Carlos, G Josh Kozinski and G Braylon Rayson, a sign that he is building a strong foundation and has skills on the recruiting trail.
In less than a month a new coach will roam the sidelines for the first time in McGuirk Arena, and at that time the Keno Davis era will officially begin.
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