Ex-UM assistants set for first showdown as head coaches
Detroit — This wasn't supposed to happen.
All those years working as assistants at Michigan, LaVall Jordan and Bacari Alexander made a promise to one another — when they both moved on to head-coaching jobs, they wouldn't schedule each other.
Well, that idea went absolutely kaput last spring, when the duo ended up in the same conference, the Horizon League, with Jordan taking the head-coaching job at Milwaukee and Alexander taking over at Detroit Mercy. The two teams will square off at 7 Friday night for the first time since the good friends both landed their first head-coaching gigs.
"Now," Jordan said, laughing, over the phone the other day, "we're gonna play twice a year, at least."
Jordan, 37, and Alexander, 40, spent six years together on John Beilein's staff at Michigan until finally breaking into the head-coaching ranks.
They helped lead Michigan to five NCAA Tournament appearances, including an appearance in the 2013 national championship game.
NCAA Tournament hopes, meanwhile, are slim for both men this season, as they've both taken over struggling programs. But through all the early-season struggles, they've been there for each other, whether via text message or on the phone.
"We're very close," Alexander said. "I think we've been keeping each other sane at different points in the season."
Milwaukee enters the game at 7-14 (3-5 Horizon League), and Detroit Mercy at 4-16 (2-6). From that standpoint, it's certainly not a marquee game. Nor is the game a rivalry — that would be Green Bay for Milwaukee, and Oakland for Detroit Mercy.
Still, there's possibly a little extra at stake Friday night, given the two men on opposite benches.
And the fact both teams have been much better lately than earlier in the season. Milwaukee has won its last two games, while Detroit has won two of its last four — including an impressive road victory over Oakland — after starting the season 2-14, with only one of those first two wins against a Division I opponent.
"I'm looking forward to the game," said Alexander, "because we need our next win."
Jordan, a former star at Butler, has been a coach since 2004, moving from Butler to Iowa to Michigan before landing at Milwaukee.
Alexander, who played at Robert Morris and Detroit Mercy, has coached since 2001, first at Detroit, then Ohio, then Western Michigan and finally at Michigan.
They are two of Beilein's growing head-coaching tree, a tree he tries to keep tabs on as best he can — even if it's during some rare quiet moments at the end of the weekend.
"It's really fun to see what those guys are doing, as (with) my other guys that are out there," Beilein said this week. "Usually it's Sunday morning and I have some time, maybe, to just look at how my Division III guys, my Division II guys, my son is doing, everybody is doing, how the season is going for those guys.
"That's where I sort of catch up, but I'm proud of both of them. I think Bacari is being really innovative right now with just changing his defense and trying to create an up-tempo game. Vall had two back-to-back, last-second wins. It's great."
Beilein originally had planned to attend the game at Calihan Hall on Friday night, an off-night for Michigan following Thursday's home game against Indiana.
But he has a recruiting trip scheduled ahead of Sunday's game at Michigan State, so he can't make it.
Beilein has stayed in touch with both throughout the season, however.
"We talked a little bit about it, but I think there's very little you can say to them," Beilein said. "I always tell anybody, 'Your team is never as bad as they look,' and, 'They're definitely never as good as they look.' Just continue to coach and just try to make them better. That's my stand with all my guys."
Alexander cleaned house after taking over at Detroit Mercy, cutting some players, including arguably the team's most-talented, Paris Bass. He also had to scramble to salvage a recruiting class, and he held onto to freshman guard Corey Allen, and signed German 7-footer Malik Eichler. Both players are emerging as possibly stars of the future for the Titans, though there are growing pains, to be sure. Alexander also added a Michigan transfer, Kameron Chatman, who is eligible to play next season.
There's plenty of talent on the Detroit Mercy roster, as Alexander noted, but most agree it'll take some time to full come together. There have been flashes (the Oakland upset), but frustrations, too (Detroit Mercy fouls more than all but one of the 347 Division I teams).
Next season could be a good one, and even later this season, there could be some pleasant surprises.
"Just find and celebrate the small victories throughout the season," Alexander said, of the advice he's received from Beilein. "It's actually easy. It all depends on how you define small victories. A lot of the time, it's watching your group grow in certain areas. We've really grown significantly in terms of supplying effort for a full 40 minutes.
"There's a lot of different small victories you celebrate throughout the season. We had our first winning streak, two games!"
With that, Alexander let out a chuckle.
That's been key for both men, and that's keeping things in perspective.
Neither coach took over a program that was in the most-dismal of circumstances — Milwaukee was 20-13 last season, but fired Rob Jeter; Detroit Mercy was 16-15, but fired Ray McCallum Jr. — but there were character and culture issues at both schools.
Jeter refused to let Milwaukee take part in a postseason tournament last season, even though boosters offered to pay for the trips.
McCallum was criticized for being a pushover with players, especially those who had off-court issues, such as Bass.
Milwaukee lost several top players, either to graduation or transfers; Jeter had many loyalists on the roster. Milwaukee has two just two players averaging in double-digit scoring, Brock Stull and Cody Wichmann. Both average just 12.19 points. By comparison, Detroit Mercy has four players averaging in double digits, three at better than 12.19.
Alexander isn't fooled, though. Of Milwaukee, he said, "I see a collection of really good players."
Milwaukee and Detroit Mercy don't have long, NCAA Tournament histories like Michigan.
Milwaukee made the Tournament in 2014, but hasn't won a Tournament game since 2006. Detroit Mercy made the Tournament in 2012, but hasn't won a Tournament game since 1999.
None of that's likely to change this season, barring magical runs in the Horizon League tournament at Joe Louis Arena in March. It'll be rare for both to be spectators for March Madness, after being on the sidelines for 15 NCAA Tournament games during their six seasons together at Michigan.
At least Jordan and Alexander have someone to relate to, in each other.
"He's a good friend who was once a rival, and became a good friend, and now is a rival again," Jordan said. "It'll be a fun one."
James Hawkins contributed
Milwaukee at Detroit Mercy
Tip-off: 7 Friday, Calihan Hall, Detroit
TV/radio: WADL Channel 38, ESPN3/910
Records: Milwaukee 7-14 (3-5 Horizon); Detroit Mercy 4-16 (2-6)
Outlook: Milwaukee has won two in a row and three of five, after a slow start to the season. Its offense isn't anything special, but Milwaukee is third in the Horizon League in scoring defense, at 70.6 points a game. ... Detroit Mercy, loser of two in a row, is more offensive-focused, scoring at least 70 in 15 of 20 games, 80 in six games and 90 twice.