Flashback: Looking at the 2003 CMU men’s basketball team’s trip to the NCAA tournament
The 2003 men’s basketball season ended in a cruel way the season for every NCAA tournament team but one ends: With a thud.
In the second round of the NCAA tourney, Central Michigan was dominated by Duke in an 86-60 loss. Senior forward Mike Mancie, an unheralded and often overlooked member of the team, went 1-for-9 from the field and finished with five points.
But for Manciel, and CMU, it was a glorious run to that juncture 10 years ago that few expected.
“I felt like I achieved everything I ever wanted, plus some,” Manciel said a decade after the historic season. “We came so far. Where the expectations from anyone, other than those guys that suited up, wasn’t even that high.”
The Chippewas finished the previous season 9-18, and Manciel, the 1999 Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year, had 8.6 points per game in another injury-plagued season.
Manciel had eye and groin injuries that muddled his redshirt junior year after being hampered by a foot injury the previous season.
He said he had an attitude problem as a result of the tumultuous seasons.
“I wasn’t the most friendly guy to be around,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was cancer to the team, but I wasn’t a positive leader that was needed.”
But after the 2001-2002 season, things began to look up for Manciel and the team.
A key moment that set the trajectory in the right direction was when then-head coach Jay Smith, a person he did not always see eye-to-eye with, summoned him to his office and gave him a week to ponder whether he wanted to play his senior year, just focus on school, or leave altogether.
“Basically, I brought him in because he was miserable and it was going on to teammates,” said Smith, now an assistant coach at Detroit-Mercy. “He was frustrated because he was injured. He was frustrated because he wasn’t playing well. He was frustrated because he wasn’t making shots.”
Days later, Manciel came back and told him his decision.
“Went in there and said, “hey coach, one year left, it’s been a rough ride. It’s been a rocky relationship between me and you,” he said. “But it’s my last year, and I want to play. I want to play, and I want to do whatever it takes to make it work between me and you.”
Then he promised he would be the best leader he could be and leave it all on the floor.
He fulfilled that promise.
“He took off like a jet,” Smith said. “He needed a little bit of a wakeup call, and he woke up in a big way.”
In a move that was contrasting from other seasons, Manciel stayed in Mount Pleasant to work out, instead of working solo in Detroit where his family lived.
He also took a leadership role in the offseason and would later be named captain.
He welcomed it, calling countless team meetings week after week during the season.
“I would call a meeting, just to call a meeting,” he said. “Knowing it’s my last hurrah, it meant the world to me to just hang out.”
Manciel held one in the offseason with a bonfire, and the team made a pact that they would all commit themselves.
“At that point right there, any thoughts of injuries or anything like that was gone,” he said. “I was fully committed. It was my team to lead. I’m the oldest guy on the team. I was going to go out with a bang.”
A bang the unheralded senior made as he helped lead CMU to arguably its most successful season in its history with a school-record 25 wins.
The 6-foot-6 forward doubled his points per game from the previous season, scoring 16.8 by making 53.1 percent of his field goals and 37.7 percent of his three-pointers.
He also grabbed 4.9 rebounds a game, while junior center Chris Kaman grabbed the rest.
“He could post up a guy. He could pick-and-pop him a little bit on the perimeter. If a big guy comes out on him, he could go by him,” Smith said. “He was strong, he was tough, and he knew what it took to win.”
Smith, who said prior to Manciel’s senior season that he had “de-energized” them, gave Manciel 32.4 minutes a game, which made him one of only two players to tally over 30 minutes.
Manciel, on CMU’s way to the MAC tournament, had his two best games in wins at Michigan and at Western Michigan as he nearly had double-doubles in each.
He scored 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Michigan in an 85-78 win, and, with little help from Kaman, because of WMU homing in on him, Manciel made nine of 11 shots to score a team-high 23 points and pulled in nine rebounds to lead CMU to an 80-75 victory.
CMU came into the MAC tournament as the No. 1 seed with a 21-6 record, but the team had reasons to be fearful.
The Chippewas were about as good two years earlier when they finished 20-8 and had the same 14-4 conference record.
As a mid-major it is almost a requirement to win the conference tournament to gain entry to the NCAA tournament.
And five days after CMU fans stormed the court after clinching the 2001 regular season conference title, the team did not even beat its first opponent, losing to eight-seeded Miami (Ohio) and a chance to go to the NCAA Tourney.
All in all, they blew past every opponent with ease in 2003, starting with Bowling Green.
Manciel helped his team get over the hump, making seven of seven shots from the field for 15 points in the first game.
“It was, OK, let’s just get this first win and then once we get this first win, get that monkey off our back. Then from there, we would just see where it goes,” he said. “Once we got the first win, it was, OK, let’s finish this thing off.”
In the final two rounds, CMU beat Northern Illinois and Antonio Gates’ Kent State for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1987.
But just making it to the NCAA tournament was not good enough for the team.
The Chippewas had to get a win in Salt Lake City.
And they got it, 79-72, over sixth-seeded Creighton in a game that the Chippewas let their 26-point lead dwindle after running out of energy because of the high altitude.
Manciel was the one who led CMU to its third NCAA Tournament win in its history.
After three years that were marred with injuries, he put his finishing touches on a great one for him and his team in a big way.
He outplayed Kyle Korver to score a game-high 29 points, the most points a CMU player has ever scored in the NCAA tournament, shooting nine-of-14 from the field and grabbing eight rebounds in 38 minutes of play.
“We would never have made it to the second round unless Mike played like he played,” Smith said. “Chris Kaman didn’t particularly play great, while Manciel had the marquee game.”
Manciel showed the “will power” Smith said he had when he tussled with Korver to grab an offensive rebound and put it in to give CMU a 14-point lead with about one minute left for his 13th point of the first half.
When Creighton brought it within 72-70 with about one-and-a-half minutes left, it was Manciel who nailed an 18-footer to end a 9-0 run and gave CMU its first win in the NCAA tournament since 1975.
“It felt like a dream come true,” he said. “I praised the lord. Clearly, there wasn’t nothing done on my part. It was literally him putting me in the right position in the right time to do what I did.”
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