Mount Pleasant — Grad transfers have aided college basketball teams throughout the country, but none could be bigger than Larry Austin Jr. for Central Michigan.
Austin, a 6-foot-2 point guard, was highly-touted coming out of high school when he averaged 22.2 points his senior year at Lanphier High in Springfield, Ill. He was a first-team all-state selection by the Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times.
However, Austin’s college career never went like he had hoped, averaging just 1.3 points and 0.8 assists in 60 games while playing his first two years at Xavier, then averaging 2.5 points in 11 minutes last season at Vanderbilt, starting three games.
But Central coach Keno Davis is thrilled to have Austin running the Chippewas’ offense.
After getting picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference West Division, Austin helped the Chippewas get off to a 13-2 start (2-0 MAC) following an 88-86 overtime win over Akron last Tuesday when he scored on a layup with 2.9 seconds left to push their record to 8-0 at McGuirk Arena.
Then, it looked like the Chippewas were on their way to winning their eighth straight game for the first time in 31 years Saturday, but failed to close out a six-point lead (78-72) with just over a minute left, opening the door for Bowling Green (11-5, 3-0 MAC East) to pull out a 97-87 overtime win at McGuirk.
Still, there’s room for optimism at Central since its showed the ability to score in bunches, coming back from a 16-point second-half deficit when five players made 3-pointers during a 38-18 run during a 10:06 stretch to turn a 54-38 deficit into a 76-72 lead with 2:07 remaining.
Austin is the catalyst. He ranks fourth in the MAC in scoring (18.7) while leading the conference in assists (5.4) and second in steals (2.31).
“I wish I had another year with him,” said Davis of Austin. “He has gotten better through his collegiate career, but hasn’t had the reps, hasn’t had the opportunity in a game, so he’s just learning. I think what you see is some flashes of brilliance and what a great talent he is, and I’m going to be excited to not only see what he can become the rest of this season, but I’m going to be interested to see his pro career. The sky is the limit for a guy who brings that type of intensity to the court.”
Austin is enjoying his chance to start on a consistent basis for the first time in his college career.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity," Austin said. “I just think it’s a great opportunity for me to play basketball and have fun.
“They play fast. They get after it on the defensive end and that’s my game, not slowing it down in the halfcourt. But I feel like I thrive when we play fast and get after it at the defensive end because for me as a player my offense starts when I’m locking in on the defensive end.”
Central leads the MAC in scoring (87.7) and steals (8.6).
Austin has a lot of weapons to work with in senior guard Shawn Roundtree Jr. (15.7 points), 6-5 junior guard Kevin McKay (13), 6-7 junior forward David DiLeo (11.4) and 6-6 junior forward Rob Montgomery (10.1).
Junior guard Dallas Morgan (7.2) comes off the bench and gives the Chippewas instant offense. He scored 11 in 16 minutes Saturday, making three 3-pointers during a 20-7 run to give them their first lead (66-65) of the game.
“We have a lot of shooters who work on their game every day, just find them in open spots they hit one and they think the next one’s going in,” said Austin of the Chippewas, who are shooting .474 from the field (third in the MAC) and .353 from 3-point range with DiLeo connecting on a team-high 40 percent from long range.
Davis had an outstanding point guard four years ago in Chris Fowler when Central entered the MAC tournament championship game as the top seed before losing to Buffalo.
When asked if the Chippewas can make it back to the MAC title game, especially with no clear favorite in the West Division, Davis said: “There’s no doubt that we’re talented enough. Unfortunately there’s like 10 other teams in this league that are talented enough to play Buffalo in the championship game.
“We’ve got guys who are more than capable 3-point shooters, they are really good. It’s part of what our assistant coaches are real focused on, guys who are versatile, that they can play defense, but they can also score, spread the floor and shoot the ball from 3-point range.”
Despite his 26-point, 11-rebound, six-assist game against Bowling Green, Austin missed a pair of free throws with 56 seconds left and turned the ball over during the final minutes which led to a Bowling Green transition basket.
But Austin has the opportunity to learn from those mistakes by getting back on the court and playing in those critical moments beginning Tuesday at MAC West-leading Northern Illinois (10-6, 3-0).
In addition to Larry Austin Jr. at Central Michigan, here are other notable grad transfers making an impact with their new teams.
Zach Hankins, Xavier: The 6-11 Hankins led Ferris State to the Division II national championship last season. At Xavier he is making major contributions, averaging 10.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. He rallied Xavier back from a 17-point deficit earlier this month against Georgetown for a 81-75 victory with his double-double (23 points, 10 rebounds) on 10-of-14 shooting, along with three blocks.
Reid Travis, Kentucky: The 6-8 forward, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds for Stanford last season, is at 13.2 points and 6.5 rebounds for the No. 12 Wildcats this season.
Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens, Texas Tech: Mooney transferred from South Dakota and is averaging 11.4 points for No. 8 Texas Tech. Owens, from St. John’s, is averaging 8.1 points and 5.1 rebounds, and he also has 42 blocks.
Miles Reynolds and Aaron Calixte, Oklahoma: The Sooners are No. 20 with big assists from grad transfers in guards Reynolds (Pacific, 9.5 points) and Calixte (Maine, 8.9 points).