Diminutive Keene emerges as nation's top scorer at CMU

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Mount Pleasant — He scored 32 in his Central Michigan debut, then 30 for an encore. Two games later, 36. Two games after that 32, then 31, and 36 and 31, before dropping 40, and 44 more two games after that. By Christmas, Marcus Keene was averaging nearly 32 points a game.

And, just like that, almost out of nowhere, the Chippewas had a phenomenon on their hands — one who caught not just outsiders by surprise, totally flat-footed if you will, but Keene, too.

Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene leads the country in scoring, averaging 30.2 points per game.

A little-known 21-year-old from San Antonio in October, he’s quickly become much, much more as he attempts to become the first Division I player in 20 years to average 30 points for an entire regular season.

“I took myself by surprise,” Keene said with a boyish grin the other day following a morning practice on campus. “To basically keep up almost 30 a night for 24 games, 25 games, that’s hard.

“It’s pressure, yeah. Because with (four) games left, I want to be the one to accomplish that. Ten games ago, I wasn’t really thinking about that.”

Through 27 games, following a 40-point outburst in Saturday night’s 109-100 overtime loss to Ball State, Keene is averaging 30.2 points, tops in the nation, with the next-closest competitor nearly six points back.

He is poised to become the second player from a Michigan college ever to lead the nation in scoring, joining Oakland’s Reggie Hamilton, who averaged 26.2 points in 2011-12.

Keene will need a bit of flourish down the stretch to stick at 30, which would make him the first man to accomplish that feat in Division I since Long Island’s Charles Jones averaged 30.1 points in the 1996-97 season.

“We knew we had a special player,” Central Michigan coach Keno Davis said. “After nine or 10 games, I was asked, ‘Can he keep it up?’ And the answer was a resounding, ‘No.’ Nobody could keep those numbers up. Well, he’s proven me wrong. His off nights are usually 23 or 24 points.

“The nights where he has off halves, he ends up with 20-plus.

“The nights he doesn’t have off halves, he ends up with 40-plus.”

In 15 games, Keene has scored 30 or more. Six times, he’s scored 40 or more. And once —in a 101-92 victory over Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 21 — he scored 50, third-highest in Central Michigan history and the top scoring performance in Division I this season.

It’s certainly been quite the debut — and potentially only — season for Keene in Mount Pleasant, after transferring from Youngstown State, where he spent two seasons. He’s already become Central Michigan’s single-season scoring leader, breaking Dan Majerle’s 30-year-old record, and taken a bite out of the Chippewas’ biggest rival, Western Michigan, when he scored 35 on Feb. 3 at home, including a tie-breaking 3 with 5 seconds left, despite falling backward toward his team’s bench, with a defender all up in his face.

“A tough-shot taker,” said Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins, “and a tough-shot maker.”

Keene’s season has brought Central Michigan, a mid-major program, some major attention nationally, with interest from ESPN, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal and CBS Evening News, to name a few outlets that have inquired to profile Keene. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith gave him a live shout-out on “First Take.” There’s been so many requests, Jim Rome hasn’t gotten an interview, despite multiple feelers.

The exposure, conservatively, has been worth a couple million dollars in free advertising for the state’s sixth-largest college.

“To this extent,” Central Michigan public-relations guy John Regenfuss, asked if he expected this much hoopla, “No.”

Central Michigan guard Marcus Keene has scored 30 or more points 15 times this season.

Taking a chance

For the second consecutive year, a mid-major star in Michigan has taken the nation by storm.

Last year, it was Oakland’s Kay Felder, who led the nation in assists and was fourth in scoring. He went to Oakland because he wanted to stay close to home, after attending Detroit Pershing High School.

Keene ended up at a mid-major in the Midwest because he battled a litany of ankle injuries in high school in Texas, so he committed early on to Youngstown State, for fear another ankle injury could cost him one of the only offers he received. He was solid as a freshman, even better as a sophomore, but something wasn’t right.

Keene, after all, is as competitive as they come.

“He wants to be the best in everything. He wants to win everything,” Central Michigan junior forward DaRohn Scott said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a card game; rock, paper, scissors; or anything. He’s the ultimate competitor.”

And while Keene remained grateful for Youngstown State taking a chance on a 5-foot-9 guard with a long injury history, he never really felt the program could win. It has never finished better than fifth in the Horizon League, meaning a shot at the NCAA Tournament wasn’t in the cards.

So Keene decided to transfer after his sophomore season.

The news quickly made the rounds on Twitter and the like, and caught the attention of Central Michigan assistant coach Jeff Smith.

Central Michigan had two star guards, in Chris Fowler and Rayshawn Simmons, who were juniors at the time, and who the Chippewas knew they would soon have to replace.

“Going into their senior year, we were gonna need some immediate help, not just a high-school guy, to bridge the gap,” Davis said. “Maybe the junior-college route, or a transfer. When we saw the social-media stuff, Jeff and saw that come across, we had actually played Youngstown State. And Marcus did pretty much what he’s doing for us. He was able to score whenever he wanted to.

“That’s somebody we’ve gotta get after, and find out more about.”

There was a slight problem, though.

Central Michigan already had one 5-9 guard in place, then-sophomore Braylon Rayson. That actually was both a plus and a negative in recruiting Keene. The two knew each other well from the Texas AAU circuit and were friends — Rayson is from Dallas — but Keene wasn’t immediately convinced he could shine in a system that already had a 5-9 guard.

“You never see it,” Keene said.

But with Youngstown State blocking a transfer to a Horizon League power — like, say, Oakland or Valparaiso — and no great options back home in Texas, Keene took a leap of faith on Central Michigan. After sitting out last year per NCAA transfer rules — as the Chippewas went 17-16 and 10-8 in the Mid-American Conference to tie for the West Division title — Keene and Rayson have combined to average 51.4 points a game. They’re 1-2 in the conference in scoring, with Rayson averaging 21.2, entering Tuesday night’s home game against Northern Illinois.

Central Michigan has lost three straight nailbiters and is 16-11, 6-8 and tied for second with Northern Illinois in the MAC West. But outside of East leader Akron, it’s been a league of parity.

“Nobody,” said Davis, with the MAC tournament looming, “is going to want to see us in the tournament.”

Central Michigan junior Marcus Keene is averaging 30.2 points a game entering Tuesday night's game.

Play like Kay

Keene figures he’s played basketball since he was 2. He played other sports along the way, including football, baseball and soccer. He was a running back in football, but it wasn’t for him. He wanted the ball at all times, wanted to be in control at all times. Basketball provided him that outlet, until last year, when he was forced to sit out for an entire season.

That, for sure, was different. But it was positive in many ways, too. It gave an opportunity to get stronger (he’s 175 pounds), and an opportunity to get completely healthy. It also gave him a chance to pay close attention to another 5-9 mid-major point guard, Felder, whose highlights — including him going off against Michigan State in an overtime game at The Palace in December 2015 — were everywhere on the TV and the Internet.

Keene and Felder squared off a couple times when Keene was at Youngstown State. Last year, Keene watched Felder’s stock rise and thought, “That could be me.”

“Right, right, right,” Keene said. “I see comparisons. Then we’ve got different comparisons, as well.

“I think the similar is our competitiveness. You can tell every night, we both want to win. It doesn’t matter who we’re going against, who we’re playing against. We’re both quick, both can score the ball, we just score it in different ways.

“He’s a little bit more athletic, I shoot better than him, I think, as far as the 3-point line. We’ve got different games. You know, we’re both 5-9, both want to win and both know we can compete with anybody in the country.

“Coach Keno is allowing me to run the team how Coach (Greg) Kampe did over there with him.

“I can do the same thing.”

Kampe, who coached against Keene when he was at Youngstown State, breaks it down like this: Felder has the athleticism and speed edge and looks to pass first; Keene is stronger and looks to score first.

Oakland and Central Michigan had a “secret” scrimmage this fall, and Kampe noticed how Keene has bulked up, physically and mentally.

“There’s a kid with a strong belief in himself. He really believes,” Kampe said. “You can’t do what he’s doing without that belief.”

Felder believed so much in himself, he decided — despite many naysayers — to leave Oakland after his junior season and enter the NBA draft. It was a decision that caught Oakland by surprise, and made for some tense moments on draft night, as one pick after another came and went without Felder hearing his name. Finally, with the 54th overall pick, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded up and took Felder, and later signed him to three-year, $2.4 million contract, with $1 million guaranteed.

Felder has bounced back and forth between the Cavaliers and the NBA’s Development League, but appears to have a bright professional future.

Certainly, Keene is paying attention to Felder’s career arc — and will have a decision of his own to make this spring on whether he’ll do a second year at Central Michigan or turn professional

“I’m definitely gonna test the waters, because you can always come back,” Keene said. “I’ve seen what he does, (and want to) follow in his footsteps. He got a guaranteed contract. We’re gonna let that play out and see what happens.”

Felder, to be sure, is watching, too. He recently retweeted one of Keene’s Twitter posts. Little guys with big game stick together.

Marcus Keene lets fly the winning 3-pointer with 5 seconds left in CMU's win over rival WMU earlier this month.

Eyes on The Dance

Keene, an enthusiastic jokester off the court and a fierce son a gun on it — even if it’s after practice, and it’s impromptu one-on-one, he’ll stay “until he beats you and beats you multiple times,” Davis said — has a lot of college ball left, even if he decides to turn pro in a matter of weeks.

For starters, he wants the team to be successful. He set the program’s single-season scoring record two games ago (he’s at 815 and counting), but because it came in a tough loss, he was so distraught, he had no interest in discussing the feat with the postgame media.

“Just hopefully,” said Keene, “get to the NCAA Tournament.”

Central Michigan hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 2003, but this team is third in the nation in scoring, making the Chippewas a threat on any night. Problem is, they’re 345th in the nation in scoring defense.

While Keene, a full-time point guard for the first time, is a ball hawk, he’s not necessarily a ball hog.

He’s seeing more and more double teams these days, especially the second time around the league, and is adjusting to that.

“He has had some games he hasn’t been knocking down his shot, where he will defer and he’ll get other guys involved,” Davis said. “It isn’t always about just getting his points. At times, that would be easy to do when you’re getting all the publicity about your scoring. But he understands he wouldn’t get much publicity if we had a losing team.”

To that point, Keene leads the team in assists and is third in the MAC, at 5.1 a game.

That said, make no mistake, Keene definitely wants to average 30 points a game. That’s history, after all. And Central Michigan fans really want that, too, and aren’t shy about letting him know it.

“When I don’t get 30, you’ll get the tweets, ‘I hope Marcus can get 30 the next game,’ ” Keene said, laughing. “Dang, what if I had 27 and eight assists, what about that? You know what I’m saying. It is some pressure. Plus, every time I usually score 30 and more, we usually win games.”

It’s a fact. Only three times has Keene scored 30 or more and the Chippewas lost the game.

“Keno puts him in a position to take a lot of shots,” Hawkins said. “And they live with the results.”

Keene is one of 30 finalists for the Naismith Trophy (out of three from mid-majors), and one of 20 finalists for the Wooden Award (out of two from mid-majors). The Wooden Award rolls out multiple watch lists throughout the season, and Keene didn’t even appear on the first two cuts.

See. It’s not just Central Michigan — or himself — that he’s caught by surprise.

“I told him he should enjoy every bit he gets, and it’s been great for him,” Davis said. “The great thing about our game and the world we live in today, you don’t have to be at the Kentuckys or the Dukes for everybody to see you.

“If you’re at the right program or in the right system for you’re game, you’re gonna get seen and you’re gonna get known.”

CMU's Marcus Keene might not last long in Mount Pleasant. He is considering a jump to the NBA after this season.

Getting to know ...

Marcus Keene, Jr., Guard

Age: 21 (May 6, 1995)

Height/weight: 5-foot-9/175 pounds

Hometown: San Antonio (Warren High School)

College: Central Michigan (2015-17), Youngstown State (2013-14)

2016-17 stats: 30.2 points per game (No. 1 nationally), 5.1 assists (46th), 4.6 rebounds, 45.5 percent field-goal percentage, 37.3 percent on 3’s, 81.3 percent on free throws

Accolades: With 815 points, he has become CMU’s all-time leader in single-season scorer, passing Dan Majerle’s record which stood for 30 years. He’s been named to the most recent Wooden and Naismith award watch lists.

Prior to Central Michigan: He averaged 15.6 points as a sophomore at Youngstown State, and 6.5 points as a freshman. Keene was his high school’s all-time leading scorer.