Central Michigan had a 20-plus win season last year and earned its first postseason appearance since Chris Kaman led the Chippewas past Creighton in the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Now, coach Keno Davis hopes to build off that success.
While the CollegeInsider.com tournament isn’t the NCAA Tournament, having a pair of postseason wins gives the Chippewas added experience heading into the 2018-19 campaign.
But CMU (21-15, 7-11 Mid-American Conference) isn’t getting any respect and is picked to finish last in the MAC West by coaches and media members.
Davis is still optimistic about the season, especially with the addition of grad transfer and point guard Larry Austin Jr. from Vanderbilt.
“I think going into the season there’s a lot of reason for optimism regarding our team,” Davis said. “I was proud of the way we finished the season, winning three straight conference games before falling in a game to Buffalo (in the MAC tournament), which was really close there for about 37 minutes before falling in the first round in Cleveland.
“Winning 21 games off of last season was quite an accomplishment. I think the reason for the optimism is we won 21 games but on paper and from what we’ve been able to see, we have even more of a complete team this year, a better team for the offensive and defensive end.
“I think it just shows to the strength of the conference that you have a 21-win team that’s better on paper and you’re picked in the bottom of your conference.”
Davis feels the addition of Austin, who played 23 games for Vanderbilt and averaged 2.5 points and an assist in 11 minutes last season, will give the Chippewas the ability to play with multiple point guards at the same time.
“I think Larry Austin Jr. is an exceptional talent, comes in with one year of eligibility and I think you’ll see both him and (Shawn) Roundtree starting together, so we’ll have two point guards on the court,” Davis said. “Both of them are exceptional leaders who can score the basketball, but Larry Austin is also a great defender as well.
“If your backcourt can be able to have some explosiveness offensively, but also to have made a pretty good upgrade on the defensive end, as a coach it gives you some opportunities to do different things on the court.”
With Davis at the helm, the Chippewas have been known for their uptempo, 3-point shooting attack. Roundtree returns as the team’s leading scorer (14.8 points) with junior guard Kevin McKay (12.2 points, 6.5 rebounds) and junior forward David DiLeo (12.4 points, 6.6 rebounds) also key returners. DiLeo led the MAC in 3-pointers made (96) and connected on 34.9 percent of his long-range shots.
Davis is hoping Austin can help defensively since Central Michigan allowed an average of 73.9 points per game last season.
Davis is also looking for junior forward Rob Montgomery (6-foot-6, 230 pounds), a transfer from Indian Hills Community College, redshirt sophomore center Innocent Nwoko (6-11, 230) and junior forward Kevin Hamlet (6-7, 210) to give the Chippewas an inside presence.
“We’re a lot better as far as getting the ball to the basket. Not only (do we have) some guys that can penetrate and finish with strength at the rim, but it’s probably the first year that I’ve been at Central where we’ve had both on the offensive and defensive end strength and a physical presence inside," Davis said. "I think that will pay dividends for us to be able to throw the ball inside and also match up when conference play begins. I think we’ll be able to more than hold our own with the rebounding battles.
“I think Rob Montgomery is your prototypical MAC center who has some guard skills but is strong and physical. ...Then you have Kevin Hamlet and Innocent Nwoko who will be battling for minutes at that center spot.
“When you can spread out because of the 3-point line you need some guys inside who can make their presence known around the rim and I think the combination of those three guys will pay dividends.”
Central Michigan Chippewas
Coach: Keno Davis (seventh season, 98-97, 42-64 MAC)
Last year’s record: 21-15, 7-11
Top returning players: Shawn Roundtree Jr., 6-foot, Sr., guard (14.8 points); David DiLeo, 6-7, Jr., forward (12.4 points, 96 3-pointers); Kevin McKay, 6-5, Jr., guard (12.2 points, 6.5 rebounds).
This player will surprise everyone with a big season: Larry Austin Jr., a 6-2 senior point guard who has experience playing in the SEC with Vanderbilt. He will be a strong defender and is expected to join Roundtree in the backcourt to score and distribute the basketball.
CMU can win the MAC championship if ... Austin is a defensive stopper, Roundtree, DiLeo and McKay all have career years and 6-11 redshirt sophomore Innocent Nwoko develops into a double-double threat inside.
Toughest opponent: The Chippewas travel to Fort Worth on Nov. 30 to face a TCU team that is ranked No. 20 and is coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.