The men’s basketball team saw its roster nearly erased with the firing of former head coach Ernie Zeigler.
Seven players voluntarily left, two were academically ineligible to return, and three players graduated. Of those players, four were the leading scorers on the team.
That left new head coach Keno Davis with the task of filling the roster back up with, not only freshmen, but transfers and players with experience.
“We needed people to help balance out our classes,” Davis said. “We need experience on the court, because we’re a team without much.”
With such a young team, many players are getting experience immediately. Players like freshman guard Chris Fowler, who, upon graduating from Detroit Country Day in 2010, played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“At IMG, I got prepared for college basketball and worked out four or five times a day with a college-level coach and other Division I college-level players,” Fowler said. “It got me ready for the grind of the college basketball season.”
Teaming up with Fowler at the point guard spot is senior Kyle Randall, who transferred from UNC-Greensboro after graduating in just three years. Randall brings DI experience at arguably the most crucial position on the floor.
“To have guys with experience … it gives a really young team at, what I think, is the most important position on the court,” Davis said.
Davis then went to the community college level to find talent. It was at Indian Hill Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa where he found DeAndray Buckley.
Buckley, a native of Romulus, Mich., was a captain at IHCC and led the team to a 33-4 record, as well as district and conference championship.
“We saw DeAndray as someone who is very talented and is a home-grown talent,” Davis said. “We’re hopeful he can have a healthy year; he’s battling injuries, and, when he’s healthy, he can definitely help this team.”
Zeigler’s staff was able to sign one freshman before the firing. That freshman was 6-foot-8 forward John Simons.
Luckily, Davis didn’t need to persuade the tall forward with range from behind the arc. Davis had ties with the Simons family from his days at Drake, where Simon’s brother Ben currently plays.
“It wasn’t really anything I had to sell; I had recruited his brother, so I knew the family,” Davis said. “I knew he fit exactly what we wanted to do; this style fits him.”
Size is something Davis needed coming in, and, with his fast-paced offense, those big guys still needed to be able to shoot.
Forward Blake Hibbits fits that description. Not only does he bring his 6-foot-7 stature, but, during the team’s three-point contest, Hibbits won for the men’s team.
“He fits in the up-tempo style and gives us another shooter at the power forward position,” Davis said. “He can develop into a great shooter here, and he’s put on 20 lbs. since he got here, which is great credit to our strength-training program.”
Three guards round out Davis’ first freshman class.
Spencer Krannitz was the leading scorer in West Michigan, according to ESPN, scoring 30 points a game in his senior season at North Muskegon High School.
“He comes in as a big-time scorer out of high school and is already a great shooter,” Davis said. “He is developing the other parts of his game, but, if there is one area of the game we would like to start with as a coach, it’s (his) shooting.”
On the opposite end, Austin Stewart brings a defensive presence to the floor at the guard position.
The Normal, Ill. native averaged 18.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game his senior season of high school, while breaking the school record in steals with 235.
“When you talk about having a prototypical guard, Austin Stewart is the guy you look for with strength, size and versatility,” Davis said. “He can shoot it, drive, defend and rebound – he does everything, and now he’s going to improve.”
Last, but not least, is Derrick Richardson Jr.
Richardson showed what he can do Monday night at Iowa when he scored 14 points off the bench, while shooting .667 percent from the field, including 2-for-2 in three-point attempts.
“It didn’t take me long at Ypsilanti High School for a 7 a.m. workout to realize he was a special player,” Davis said. “For him to be available in April was great, not only because he’s a special talent, but I think his upside fits the up-tempo style.”
Davis had a lot of holes to fill with his roster coming into the season, but in almost a Moneyball-like way, found the pieces to create a team he feels can compete in the Mid-American Conference right away.