Henning: University of Detroit Mercy working to raise profile

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Not many places in America make you feel better about America than a college campus.

Freedom abounds. Enlightenment is the pursuit. Bright people are in excess. As are people of character, so many of them young and determined and idealistic.

Which brings us to Tuesday, at the corner of McNichols and Livernois, to a pastoral place known as the University of Detroit Mercy.

On the second floor at Calihan Hall, a media conference formally introduced the 2015-16 Titans men's and women's basketball teams. This came during a presentation headed by athletic director Robert C. Vowels Jr., a solid man who has a pair of equally intact coaches in Ray McCallum and newcomer Bernard Scott, who wears a hardhat to practice to establish a labor-intense theme he wants his women athletes to follow.

Vying for attention

If it were as simple as leadership and competence, Detroit regularly would be graced in its high-visibility sport, basketball. But it's tough out there, and not only at a school that 40 and 50 years ago was a basketball giant during eras when Dick Vitale and Bob Calihan coached world-class teams.

It's challenging anywhere in America for colleges, especially private universities like Detroit. Enrollment is limited. And so is visibility and budgets when ESPN and CBS spotlight Division I teams and regular NCAA Tournament seeds enticing to great players — many of them bound for the NBA — who boost attention and coffers for the big boys.

Social media put another squeeze on the smaller colleges. When's the last hour in your Twitter or Facebook life that Michigan State or Michigan avoided mention in some context? But unless you're an alum or student, or are part of a concentrated audience, there aren't a lot of chats or posts that seriously involve Detroit basketball.

In this uphill endeavor, McCallum has been working for eight years to make Detroit distinctive. He has had three seasons of 20 or more victories, which include one NCAA (2012) and one NIT (2013) dance pass. The Titans won 15 games last year. They are expected to do better this season, with media last week picking them to finish in a fourth-place finish in the Horizon League.

The goal this season, other than a Horizon title Valparaiso is favored to win, is to reach that final lap of the league tournament, March 5-8, and for the first time at Joe Louis Arena.

The tournament is, of course, a prelude to the NCAA Tournament, and will be covered in all phases by one of ESPN's channels.

"Now we have a home at The Joe," McCallum said, knowing anything that puts Detroit on stage by extension boosts Detroit's profile.

McCallum remains an important asset for Detroit. He hasn't won as people had hoped (114-117) after he arrived following coaching stops at Houston and Ball State. But in college sports being competitive and having a chance to win isn't fully appreciated any more.

The Titans have a shot this season. They have depth and important people back (Paris Bass, Anton Wilson, Jarod Williams, Matthew Grant, Carlton Brundidge, Jaleel Hogan, Chris Jenkins, Patrick Ackerman), as well as a redshirt freshman, Aaron Foster-Smith, who could be a surprise.

They have three local freshman recruits: Josh McFolley, Gerald Blackshear, and Jalen Gibson.

Degrees earned

They also have a legacy, dating to earlier decades. And they have a brand that hasn't been hurt by recent events, including the fact nearly everyone graduates.

McCallum has two players in the NBA and four playing pro basketball in Europe.

"And all have their degrees," he said, taking a breather after his formal remarks had wrapped up, explaining how Detroit draws a particular brand of athlete, one who probably isn't going to be recruited by Michigan or Michigan State but who has a place, and a future.

"The kids who are here all want an education," he said. "But they still want to play in the NCAA Tournament."