COLUMN: The Keno difference
On Oct. 29, the Mid-American Conference released its 2012-13 men’s basketball preseason poll.
Central Michigan was picked to finish in last place in the MAC West, receiving 35 votes, 11 votes behind Northern Illinois who scored only five points in the first half against Dayton this season.
Well, it's a new year, and the Chippewas are 7-6, despite a tough non-conference schedule. Who would’ve guessed it: a team that lost its head coach, its top four scorers and only returned four players would be winning.
“I’ve been saying it over and over, but I really am proud of this group,” head coach Keno Davis continues to say. “It would be easy to listen to people, that this will be a rebuilding process, and just trying to be competitive night in and night out was the goal.”
CMU is lacking in size because senior forward Zach Saylor has been out for a month and junior forward DeAndray Buckley has been out all season, but somehow the Chippewas have survived. Since Saylor's injury, CMU is 4-3 and even out-rebounded No. 2 Michigan by nine, including 11 offensive boards, in its respectable loss to the Wolverines.
“Given the circumstance with the injuries to our key players says a lot about the character of our team,” Davis said.
That seems to be the difference in the program: the character.
Davis has installed a different character with the team, a team that doesn't give up when down by 10 or let up when they are up 10.
It’s a young team, but you wouldn't know it by watching them. There are good teams around the nation that don’t know how to close out games. But the Chippewas have shown this season that they can close, in their 92-80 win against Texas State and even in the 88-73 loss to the Wolverines. They never stop fighting.
Facing its biggest deficit of the game (40-31) with 2:25 left in the first half, the Chippewas finished out the half on an 11-0 run and took a 42-40 lead into the break.
The Bobcats hit a three-pointer to cut their deficit to five with 1:22 to go and, instead of letting the lead slip away, CMU drew a foul and benefitted from a Texas State technical foul, and it was all Chippewas from there on out.
It was the Bobcats, not CMU, that folded in the end.
At Michigan, the Chippewas were down 25 at one point in the second half, and, instead of letting it get worse against the second-ranked team in the country, they battled and cut the loss to only 15.
“It says a lot about the future of this program and what it will be built around,” Davis said. “To play a Texas State team that is much better than its record … they are just a couple buckets short of where we are, above .500.”
But, Texas State isn’t above .500 and CMU is, and it all comes back to the character. The character of this team has changed both on and off the court.
In the classroom, the men’s basketball team, in recent years, has struggled. In the most recent Academic Progress Rate scores, the team avoided an NCAA penalty by scoring a 940 (school lowest) in 2011-12 after getting a 923 mark the year earlier, below the 925 benchmark.
But, that seems to have changed as well.
When the semester grades came in, the men’s basketball team GPA was over a 3.0, with half of the team over a 3.5.
“When we talked to the administration in April, we wanted a team that could compete night in and night out, compete for championships, but be able to do it the right way academically and outside of the community,” Davis said. “It talks about the quality of the individual.”
This is a team fans can get behind, and they have.
During the semester, the student sections have been filled on both ends of the court, and they have been into the games, unlike in years past.
Even over break, people came, despite the weather and classes being out, something fans haven’t seen in quite some time.
“For our fans out there, we’re an exciting team to watch, but we’re a team you should support,” Davis said. “Not just because of how hard we play, but for what else we’re doing, and I’m proud of that far and beyond anything else I've seen on the court."
There is a lot of basketball to be played, but, no matter how the season ends, we've seen change in the program, and that already makes for a successful season.