CMU preview: Chips still finding their way
Mt. Pleasant — When Keno Davis took over the reigns of Central Michigan's basketball team in 2012, he wanted to bring respectability back to a program that hadn't had a winning season since 2002.
But rather than assemble a team of one- and two-year commits and transfers, Davis wanted to bring in four-year players.
Needless to say, it's been a bumpy road. After compiling an 11-20 record in 2012-13, Central followed that up with a 10-21 mark last season with four sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup.
"I think to get experience it's necessary to sometimes go through those growing pains," Davis said. "With the bulk of our team being four-year players, it really allows us the opportunity to develop those players ... and the program over the next several years."
With nine lettermen and all five starters returning, Davis fully expects his team to make some noise in the Mid-American Conference this season.
Junior guard Chris Fowler, a three-year captain and Preseason All-MAC West team selection, highlights the returning cast. As the team's floor general and leader, Fowler started every game last season and led Central in scoring (17.4), assists (5.3), and steals (1.9). He also ranked third in the conference in each category.
Rounding out the starting lineup are junior forwards John Simons (10.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Blake Hibbitts (9.2 ppg), junior guard Austin Stewart (7.2 ppg) and sophomore guard Braylon Rayson (10.7 ppg).
Senior guard Austin Keel (6.3 ppg) is back to provide valuable starting experience and a scoring boost off the bench, while junior guards Rayshawn Simmons (4.6 ppg), Spencer Krannitz and Derrick Richardson Jr. add depth.
"I think Chris is one of those underrated players but most opponents and coaches in this league, as well as our fans and staff here understand how important he is to our team and to our program as we continue to improve," Davis said.
"When you look at a team with all five starters back, the exciting thing for me is to figure out which players are going to make big jumps whether it's John, who has led us in rebounding the past couple years, Braylon, who was one of the best freshman in the conference, or a newcomer."
Those newcomers include incoming freshmen Luke Meyer, a 6-11, 221-pound forward from Addison, Mich.; DaRohn Scott, a 6-8.5, 230-pound forward from Grand Rapids; and Filip Medjo, a 6-3, 210-pound guard from Serbia.
Redshirt freshmen Milos Cabarkapa, a 7-foot, 237-pound center from Serbia, sat out all of last season and Josh Kozinski, a 6-4, 170-pound guard from Edwardsburg, Mich., appeared in only nine games. Both will be looked upon to contribute this season.
"We have three players on the inside that will change the outlook and look of our team dramatically," Davis said. "Milos, Luke and DaRohn are going to challenge our returners for those starting spots as well as for minutes. We've had some very intense and highly motivated practices because of the fight for starting and playing time, and I think that's going to help us improve dramatically over this year."
Davis added that while his team ranked third in the conference in scoring offense (72.5 ppg), his team's biggest weakness was its half-court defense due to a lack of size in the interior. Central ranked last in the league in scoring defense (73.8 ppg), defensive rebounds (20.7 rpg) and blocked shots (36).
But with the addition of big men Cabarkapa, Meyer and Scott beefing up the post, and another year of experience under his starters' belts, Davis believes his team is on the upswing.
"Even though we just have one senior on the team, I think this is an experienced team that has the potential to be successful. The most exciting thing for me is there isn't a game on our schedule we can't win," Davis said.
"There's not many games on the schedule you can pencil in as guaranteed wins either, but I think where we came from in the past couple years there's reason to be excited about each and every game on our schedule."
Central opens the season at home against Alma on Nov. 14 and MAC play at Toledo on Jan. 6.
A closer look at Central Michigan
Coach: Keno Davis, third season (21-41 overall, 7-25 MAC)
Last season: 10-21 overall, 3-15 MAC (five in MAC West)
Notable losses: F Zach Saylor, G/F DeAndray Buckley
Notable newcomers: F Luke Meyer, G Filip Medjo, F DaRohn Scott
Best nonconference game: Dec. 17 at Northwestern
Outlook: Central returns its starting five and 96 percent of its scoring from a team that ranked third in the MAC in scoring offense (72.5). It also added three players over 6-8 to help fortify the interior and improve its defense, which allowed the most points per game in the conference (73.8). With seven of its first 10 games at home, Central will look to start fast and build its confidence heading into league play. But if Central has any hopes of competing for the MAC West title, it needs to play better away from home after going winless in league play (0-9) and winning only two games (2-13) on the road last season.
James Hawkins is a freelance writer.