One month ago yesterday, former men’s basketball coach Ernie Zeigler was relieved of his duties, and the process began on hiring the next coach.
On April 2, Keno Davis was hired, thus beginning a new era in CMU basketball.
When you enter Davis’ office, your eyes are quickly drawn to his 2007-08 Associated Press National Coach of the Year trophy he earned while at Drake. You also see his Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year Award, and it tells you this guy knows what he’s doing, this program is heading in the right direction.
“There was a lot of unknown coming into the season without a lot of returning players, a lot of inexperience coming back and a lot of new freshmen,” Davis said. “But, I felt, by the end of the year, we might not have been the best team in the conference, but we were playing our best basketball.”
The team came into conference play at 7-6, the first winning record in non-conference play since the 2004-05 season, and new-found excitement for the program.
But, a 10-game losing streak that began with a 74-61 loss at home against Northern Illinois, a team who broke the record twice this season for lowest point total in a half, with five in one game and four in another.
“It was a tough thing to go through, because (the team) was working so hard,” Davis said. “You get to a point where you worry about the team taking a step back, but I would tell them each time that we’re a better team than we were the game before.
“It’s difficult to understand that while you’re losing, but I saw signs of individual play improving, and I thought we’d be a tough out come conference tournament time,” Davis said. “Especially if we could have won that first road game; I thought if we got to a neutral site, we could compete with anybody.”
Despite the 10-game losing streak, Davis thought his team stayed strong mentally; after giving it some thought, he believed the lowest point of the 10-game losing streak came in a 76-59 loss to rival Western Michigan at home.
“The one tough time for us was when we lost to Western Michigan so soundly,” Davis said. “Our players realized they had a lot of work to do to be at that level.”
But the team fought through that loss and nine others before redeeming itself in a dominant 69-50 win against the Huskies on the road, followed by what Davis thought was the flip side of the first loss to the Broncos, a 61-59 win against rival Eastern Michigan on senior night.
“You’re going against a team with a lot more experience, size and a team that was playing for home court and the division,” Davis said. “Playing on senior night, to be able to send the seniors out coming off of a road win was something. You always want to finish the regular-season strong, and we were able to do that.”
But the season is now over after a 74-72 loss in overtime at Buffalo. Despite back-to-back losses on the road to end the season, they were games the program can continue to build upon.
After having just four returning players an offseason ago, Davis will potentially welcome back 10 for next season’s roster, including senior center Zach Saylor, who might receive a medical redshirt.
Davis will also be welcoming back four freshmen starters: Chris Fowler, Blake Hibbitts, John Simons and Derrick Richardson, Jr.
“We’re looking at every option,” Davis said.
One option Davis mentioned was the possibility of guys transferring; that’s how he found the Mid-American Conference’s leading scorer Kyle Randall last year.
“Kyle Randall was important for a couple of reasons,” Davis said. “His experience gave us the opportunity to be in games and the influence he’s had with the younger players.”
Randall played a big role in the development of Fowler, who at the end of the season became a star at the point guard position.
“We’ll look back two or three years to Kyle Randall and realize how important he was,” Davis said. “It wasn’t long ago we were congratulating Chris on the freshman assist record, little did we know he would have that turning point where he was going to have double-figure assist nights and being able to score more.”
A three-year graduate from UNC-Greensboro, Randall was looking for a bigger role and found his perfect place with Davis and CMU.
“Kyle Randall had already made the decision to leave Greensboro; he wasn’t happy with having a reduced role,” Davis said. “Through our conversations with him and his family, we explained what we were going to be about … it was a situation where a young man and his family really did the research, and I think it would be hard to argue that he didn’t make the right decision.”
This season, Davis brought something more to McGuirk Arena than a few more wins; he brought excitement and a strong student following.
Davis drove home the point of the home-court advantage and it’s a high priority of improvement for him and the staff for next season as well.
“I was worried coming into the season because I didn’t hear much optimism from fans,” Davis said. “I heard it often when we went out to raise awareness, ‘coach it’s going to be a long year.’ So to be able to have an increase in crowd support is a good step; now it’s really important this offseason to say we really need a great home court, because we don’t have one. We need this to be one of the toughest places to play in the conference.”
In Zeigler’s final season, he finished 10-20 in the regular-season; Davis’ first season fared a game better, finishing the regular-season at 11-19, an impressive feat when you remember that only four players returned to the team, none of which being an everyday starter.
“It says something about the character of the student-athletes in our program,” Davis said. “Not only were we able to have some success on the court and be competitive with the top teams in our league and have double-digit victories, but we were able to have success in the classroom as well.”
It’s too early to set expectations for next year, but Davis fully expects his team to improve in every aspect of the game.
“I don’t have any expectations about wins or losses, publicly or privately,” Davis said. “But, I would expect us to be more of an up-tempo team, a better shooting team, better defending team and a better rebounding team.”