Central Michigan, under Tony Barbee, isn't hiding from anyone
Toughness, tenacity to be Chippewa staple under new head coach
Four letters grace Central Michigan’s white practice jerseys.
The letters, all consonants, are easy to see, maroon and all capitalized. Many teams adopt acronyms they hope will represent their identity, and it’s no different for the Chippewas in the first year of Tony Barbee’s tenure.
T.G.R.T. — The Game Rewards Toughness.
“It’s my philosophy in how you establish winning and the culture of physicality. You win with toughness” Barbee said. “Toughness isn’t ‘I’m throwing punches at people,’ that’s fake toughness. Toughness is about a mentality, mentally and physically.”
Barbee was officially hired as CMU’s 21st men’s basketball coach on April 23. Six months later CMU roles out its new product, featuring a brand new coaching staff and 12 new faces on the roster.
The work is far from done, though. With Barbee’s first season around the corner, the pieces are starting to come together.
Like the letters on their practice jersey, the Chippewas aren’t hiding from anyone.
“We’re not playing basketball games, we’re going out here for a fight,” Barbee said. “When teams come in here, or we travel to away games, teams will know when they see us on tape and they write that scouting report against Central Michigan, it’s not gonna be an easy night.”
Building a culture
Barbee hit the ground running in April.
Seven days after his official hire, the Chippewas had their first transfer portal commit in Cameron Healy. The sharpshooting Australia native, who spent his first four seasons at Albany, became the first of eight to come to CMU via the transfer portal.
With this commitment, Barbee’s journey to building his roster began.
"It hasn’t been a vacation, let’s put it that way," Barbee said. "(I have done) a lot of work trying to establish the foundation and the culture of the program with all of the above: recruiting, coaching, academic expectations (and) community involvement. Everything in between and all of the above.
"It’s been a crazy time, but it’s been a great time.”
Barbee isn’t new to the head coaching role. His previous stops include Texas-El Paso, where he compiled a 82-52 record, and Auburn, a tenure ending with a 49-75 mark. At UTEP, he built a program that, in his fourth and final year, lost just one conference game and made the NCAA Tournament.
Using everything he’s learned, the Chippewas’ new leader set out to find players who embodied the physical, tough brand of basketball he wanted to play. During his time on the recruiting trail, Barbee was honest and straightforward.
No tricks, no surprises.
“Nothing will be promised, everything will be earned,” Barbee said. “And when you earn something, you’re gonna work twice as hard to hold on to it.
The second thing they heard is this is going to be the hardest place you can come to learn the game of basketball; because I'm gonna demand (it) of you, and I'm gonna show you how to compete at a championship level. That has nothing to do with the offensive end of the floor."
Barbee is aware of what's come before him in the program. The Chippewas have allowed at least 73 points per game in each of the last five seasons. However, the program's new head coach is out to change that.
"The offensive end of the floor, we’ll figure out," Barbee said. "It has everything to do with where you win games, on this defensive end of the floor and establishing that as our identity. If you’re honest with them in the recruiting process, then there are no surprises once they come here because they heard it on the front end.”
The Chippewas finished eighth or lower in each of their last two seasons under Keno Davis, who was fired April 5. His style of play was a stark contrast to that of Barbee’s, who has essentially reinvented the roster left by Davis.
Many of the contributors from Davis’ final team have left Mount Pleasant, including top scorers Meikkel Murray and Caleb Huffman. Barbee has brought in a pair of established scorers in Healy and Long Island transfer Jermaine Jackson Jr. to offset the losses.
Returners from the past regime, Aundre Polk, Ralph Bissainthe and Caleb Hodgson are all primed for breakout seasons. Polk in particular stands out after being an All-MAC freshman team selection despite playing just 10 games.
With a team so new and an identity so fresh, success may not come as simply as just winning out of the gate. Barbee is taking over a team that hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 2003, a squad led by Chris Kaman, CMU’s last NBA Draft Pick.
The first year coach knows it’s going to be a work in progress, and won’t measure the effectiveness of his first year in his team’s record.
“You never look at success as wins and losses,” Barbee said. “Whether it’s an NCAA Tournament team I coached or a team that didn’t make the tournament, every season is about learning. Individually as a coach, individually as a player, and that’s about your team. So this year is about establishing the culture on the floor.”
The Chippewas may not be the team to beat in year one, and the identity may not be perfectly established. But with each day, Barbee and his group are working toward being a team to be feared.
How it goes remains to be seen. But the Chippewas’ new head coach hasn’t wasted a moment since being hired in his pursuit of building a contender.
Being a contender starts with building toughness and a fearless culture.
“You’re not gonna run into a more competitive person than me, I hate to lose more than I like winning,” Barbee said. “So we’re gonna go in every game preparing and expecting to win. And if we lose a game it’s only because we ran out of time, not because we kept fighting. That’s the type of culture I’m trying to establish in this first season."