The margin for error is slim, men's basketball still has MAC title hopes

Junior guard Kevin McKay talks to redshirt sophomore Innocent Nwoko on Jan. 8 in McGuirk Arena.

The last thing the Central Michigan men's basketball team wants right now is to be told it competed with two of the best team's in the Mid-American Conference on the road.

Almost doesn't count, but winning does when it comes to the Chippewas dreams of a MAC West Division title. CMU feels like it just had two games stolen against No. 25 Buffalo and Bowling Green.

And the taste left in its mouth is quite bitter.

"We all know our potential as a team but that doesn't matter if we don't play like it," said senior guard Shawn Roundtree. "I feel like we are the most feared team in the conference really, the only thing holding us back is ourselves."

Even at 5-6 in the MAC, the Chippewas (16-8 overall) sit at second place in the West holding the tiebreaker over Eastern Michigan. The first place Toledo Rockets (20-4, 8-3 MAC), however, are riding a five-game winning streak and hold a three-game lead over CMU with seven MAC games remaining.

The margin for error is slim and even that is generous to say.

CMU will welcome in Ohio (11-12, 3-8) on Feb. 16, followed by Kent State (18-6, 7-4) on Feb. 19, to McGuirk Arena for a pair of must-win games to keep pace in the league race. Next on the docket for CMU is Ball State (13-11, 4-7) and EMU (11-13, 5-6) for a pair of divisional road games. This is followed by a potential marquee matchup on Senior Day with the Rockets and then one home game with Northern Illinois (12-13, 5-7) and a trip to Kalamazoo with rival Western Michigan (7-18, 1-11) to finish the 2018-19 regular season.

The opportunities are there, and the Chippewas feel they can play with anyone in this league. The Falcons and Bulls are battling atop the MAC East currently. CMU went into both teams arenas and posted an 18-point lead against UB and an 11-point advantage against BGSU. 

Neither lead held up, and CMU was left with two losses that stung more because of the circumstances.

"Earlier in the MAC season we kept getting off to slow starts, obviously we fixed that because we put two of the best teams (in the MAC) down by double digits on the road," said junior forward David DiLeo. "We just have to be able to put together a 40-minute game. Basketball has plenty of runs, but we need to start and finish games the same way."

DiLeo has it right. In six of the first eight MAC games, CMU trailed or was tied at halftime. In the last three games, CMU has led going into the locker room.

The end result — a below .500 conference resume that could easily have more wins with a complete 40 minutes of basketball equivalent to CMU's effort in one of two halves.

Head coach Keno Davis doesn't look at those results as a positive or a negative going forward. What he is happy about is the fact that the Chippewas (outside of TCU) have had the chance to beat everyone on their schedule.  

"We are a team that is built to have a couple of runs and we've had some early in the game," said head coach Keno Davis. "We had Bowling Green and Buffalo within one possession with just over two minutes to play, so that is really what you want, you want to finish them off as well but we have to learn how to do that.

"Not that we needed it or enjoyed losing those games, but I think at times it can really help your team improve."

The Chippewas also has experienced foul trouble in the previous two contests. So much so that Davis said after the UB contest, "We have never been called for that many fouls since I've been at Central Michigan."

Junior forward Rob Montgomery fouled out of both contests while senior guard Larry Austin Jr. and junior guard Kevin McKay both fouled out early in the second half against the Bulls. 

Despite Davis mentioning he got an apology (from a source he didn't mention) for the officiating following the UB game, Montgomery feels he needed to be more disciplined on defense.

"Sometimes on the road you don't get the same amount of calls and you might pick up some ticky-tack fouls on our end," Montgomery said. "We just have to be smarter on the defensive end."

Regardless of the calls or losses and their current spot in the league, it is in the past. The Chippewas can only control what is within their grasp from here on out.

A regular season MAC West title is within reach, but the hourglass is running out of sand for CMU. 

The Chippewas have to win now.

"We can't take any games off," Roundtree said. "We have to approach Ohio just like we approach Buffalo or Bowling Green. "Everyone is beating each other up in the conference and every game matters. 

"We need to focus on us and take it one game at a time."