COLUMN: Men's basketball shows flashes of being a more complete team
Coming into the season, the Central Michigan men's basketball team was picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference West Division.
Through 14 games, CMU (12-2, 1-0 MAC) has put together enough wins and complete games to show it might be better than expected.
The Chippewas are a perfect 8-0 at home with their only two loses coming against Weber State on a buzzer beater and a loss to Texas Christian University, who was ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 earlier this season. However, outside the Horned Frogs, CMU hasn't played nationally ranked competition.
Last season was the same story. Outside of playing the University of Michigan, who eventually went on to the 2018 NCAA Tournament national championship game, CMU played a fair amount of weak Mid-Major Division I or Division II teams.
What's the reason for optimism with this team?
My answer — new faces and defense.
Larry Austin Jr. and Rob Montgomery have brought elements to this team that I have not seen in my two-plus years covering them — physicality and elaborate on-ball defense.
Montgomery has a team-high 18 blocks and thrives on finding them in games. He is second with 70 rebounds behind Austin who has 71. His presence in the post could really help the Chippewas in a gritty way during MAC play, which was something CMU didn't have with former center Luke Meyer.
Austin is simply a player this team needed for a long time on offense and defense. Arguably with junior guard Kevin McKay, Austin is CMU's best defender with a team-high 31 steals. However, he leads the Chippewas in scoring and is second in the MAC at 19.2 points per game.
"Defense is what I get all of my energy off of and I would call it my greatest strength," Austin said. "If we want to keep winning games, we have to play with this kind of defensive intensity all season. To become a great team you have to have great defense."
The Vanderbilt transfer brings an attitude of determination with some fire to the floor that CMU has always needed. Working alongside senior leader and guard Shawn Roundtree, who is second on the team with 15.5 points per game, they have formed a smooth-running guard tandem that is fresh under Keno Davis.
In recent seasons, Davis has relied on the 3-point shot from double guard sets, as exemplified by Chris Fowler and Rayshawn Simmons or Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson. Roundtree and Austin are both tip-top at getting to the basket and finding scoring opportunities at the end of the shot clock. It also helps other teams get in foul trouble, as CMU is on pace with 404 free throw attempts this season to blow out last seasons total of 711.
CMU's newfound physical style of play leads me to believe they could turn some heads in the MAC this season and finish possibly higher than expected. Free throw shooting is an area they could work on, ranking 10th in the MAC (65.3 percent) after finishing second in the country last year. Outside of that, CMU overall has a much more complete team than a season ago.
While it's hard to tell how they will fare against MAC competition, they have shown flashes of a team that could make more noise than predicted coming into the 2018-19 campaign.