Detroit Mercy hoops preview: Things will be rough early, and that's by design

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Preseason expectations, at least from outside the storied walls of Calihan Hall, are low for the Detroit Mercy men's basketball team.

Coming off consecutive eight-win seasons, and featuring a roster that includes 13 new players and an all-new coaching staff, the Titans were picked to finish last, or 10th, in the Horizon League.

New University of Detroit Mercy head basketball coach Mike Davis watches over his players during the team's media day this month at Calihan Hall in Detroit.

"I thought they were gonna pick us 11th, but there are only 10 teams," quipped Mike Davis, the first-year coach.

And if Davis is being honest — and he almost always is — Detroit Mercy is going to look like an 11th-place team at times, particularly early in the season.

After the annual exhibition against Division II Wayne State on Saturday ($2 admission, with proceeds benefiting Detroit Public Schools, K-5), the Titans will play their first four nonconference games on the road, and nine of 13 overall. That includes games at Temple, Butler, California, Dayton and Xavier.

This is by design — Davis' design. His Texas Southern team played 13 games on the road to open the 2017-18 season, and lost them all.

Then a funny thing happened. Texas Southern won the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament and made the NCAA Tournament.

That wasn't by accident.

"I like it, I like it," Davis said of a heavy road gantlet to open a season. "It gives you a chance to go and play where the percentage that you're gonna win is low. It's a challenge, and I love challenges."

More: New Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis avoids timetables, promises effort

The theory behind Davis' scheduling, while unorthodox, is quite simple: You're tested significantly early in the season, so that theoretically the team will be playing its best basketball when it matters most, in March.

That's especially key in the Horizon League, traditionally a one-bid NCAA Tournament league. There's no reason to think this year will be any different. It's among the lowest-rated leagues in the country, by almost any metric.

"Yeah, it gets us prepared for the conference, playing against the harder teams," said freshman guard Antoine Davis, the coach's son who backed out of his commitment to Houston and was set to play at Texas Southern before his father took the Detroit job, replacing Bacari Alexander.

"I like traveling. The bus rides, those are the only bad things."

The tough schedule isn't the only early obstacle.

The roster presents challenges, too, considering there are only three returning players. Much of Alexander's roster either transferred or graduated.

That's almost certainly going to make for some rough-around-the-edge performances early in the season — which could test the fan base's patience. And that's fine, said Davis, who isn't about to beg for patience from the fans.

"They spend their money to come see the games," said the veteran coach, 58, who's made the NCAA Tournament in nine of his 18 seasons in Division I — four of six years at Indiana, one of six years at UAB, and four of six years at Texas Southern. "The philosophy and my belief system is in March, we'll be ready.

"I don't ever ask the fans to be patient, because they don't have to patient. I ask my players to be patient and focused.

"Those are the most important things, to understand the process and stay focused."

That will be especially important this season, as there's less margin for error in the Horizon League.

The conference announced recently that it is going to an eight-team postseason tournament, which will leave two teams on the outside looking in.

Davis doesn't like the change, arguing any kid who commits to playing college athletics should have an opportunity to play in the postseason, especially since the Horizon League has seen poor seeds make runs in the basketball tournament in recent years.

But, hey, that's just another challenge for the Titans in a year that should be full of them. At least Davis likes challenge.

"We haven't played any games yet, so things are great," Davis said with a chuckle. "We're not there yet, but we're a long way from where we were."

Detroit Mercy Titans

Coach: Mike Davis (first season, 352–241 overall)

Last year’s record: 8-24 (4-14)

Top returning players: Josh McFolley, 6-4, Sr., guard (11.1 points, 2.2 rebounds); Gerald Blackshear Jr., 6-9, Sr., forward (2.6 points, 2.8 rebounds)

This player will surprise everyone with a big season: Junior guard Tra'Quan Knight is among the bevy of new faces, having transferred from Shelton State Community College in Alabama. There, he was a third-team JUCO All-American and his conference's player of the year, averaging 14.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

Detroit Mercy can win the Horizon League championship if ... Every other team in the Horizon League has to forfeit all its games. That's the sad reality with the Titans program, which faces a long climb back to relevancy.

Toughest opponent: Take your pick — either at Butler on Nov. 12 or at Xavier on Dec. 21. Xavier got a big boost with the transfer of Ferris State big man Zach Hankins, the reigning Division II player of the year.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984