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Detroit Mercy surges into rivalry rematch with Oakland

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It's a big rivalry, though this hardly is the biggest game.

The men's basketball teams at Oakland and Detroit Mercy are a combined 13-31 on the season heading into Friday night's matchup at Calihan Hall.

Detroit Mercy guard Antoine Davis (0) brings the ball up the court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., Monday, Dec. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

But their stories aren't exactly the same. While Oakland's going one way, Detroit Mercy is going the other — the right way.

"We're getting better as a team, we're getting better with our concentration and stuff in practice," said Antoine Davis, the sophomore sharp-shooter for Detroit Mercy. "A few guys are starting to come around and starting to play with more confidence. They're more comfortable."

Detroit Mercy, after starting the season 3-15, has won three of its last four games, an impressive uptick, especially given the Titans began the season believing it likely ends with the regular-season finale Feb. 29.

The Titans have appealed the NCAA's postseason ban, arguing the academic-performance issues that led to the punishment pre-date everyone on the basketball staff and roster. The NCAA has yet to respond publicly, so as we know right now, Detroit Mercy won't be playing in the Horizon League tournament.

Oakland will be in the league tournament, thanks to the league opting to go back to inviting every team, after it had cut the field to eight of the 10 teams the previous year. At 2-7 in the league, Oakland is tied for last place with IUPUI. Oakland never has finished worse than fifth since joining the Horizon League in 2013-14, and the last five seasons, it's finished first, second, third twice and fourth.

Still, it doesn't diminish the rivalry game, even if the rivalry is new to practically everyone in the basketball program, led by second-year head coach Mike Davis, Antoine's father.

"It's big for our fans, it should be big for our players. It's definitely big; I never want to downplay a rivalry game," Mike Davis said. "We played them this year, and they play so physical.

"My guys have gotta be more physical."

Oakland's defense absolutely baffled Detroit Mercy (6-16, 4-5) in the December meeting, with the help-heavy system turning its focus all on Davis. He finished with 24 points in that game, but that was on 4-for-17 shooting, including 4-for-13 on 3-pointers. And Oakland was just fine with that.

The younger Davis said the team learned a lot from that defense, and has adapted to it as more and more Horizon League foes step up the heat on Davis, who was third in the nation in scoring last season and is fourth this season, at 23.3 points per game.

Other players have risen to the occasion, among them sophomore Chris Brandon, who has had seven double-digit rebound games in his last 11 and had a career-best 18 points in a recent win over IUPUI; senior transfer Justin Miller, who has scored in double figures in eight of his last 12 games; and sophomore Marquis Moore, who twice this month has set career highs for single-game scoring.

The Titans had planned on Brandon and Moore redshirting this season, but the NCAA slap seriously hampered Davis' recruiting efforts, so it no longer was an option for them to sit out the year.

Neither could redshirt last season for similiar depth issues, after Davis was a late-in-the-game hire to replace the fired Bacari Alexander.

"So we ended up playing them, and it's the best thing that could've happened for us," Mike Davis said. "The last two weeks, we've seen a different growth in those guys that they wouldn't have had if they'd been sitting out ... if they hadn't got a chance to take their licks."

Speaking of taking its licks ... ummm, Oakland.

The Golden Grizzlies (7-15, 2-7) have lost seven of eight since they beat the Titans. That stretch includes two league shellackings at home, a 30-point loss to Illinois-Chicago last week and a 27-point loss to Wright State on Jan. 3. Such blowouts are almost unheard of in the Greg Kampe era. Then again, Kampe almost always has had a whole heck of a lot more offense with which to work (think Travis Bader, Kay Felder, Kendrick Nunn, etc.)

This season, though, Oakland is ranked 316th in scoring offense in Division I. That's due to really having no point guard, following the late offseason transfer of Braden Norris to Loyola-Chicago.

Oakland has tried a number of guys, junior Kevin Kangu, sophomore Tray Maddox Jr. and freshman CJ Gettelfinger, to no success. Now on the job is redshirt sophomore Rashad Williams, the Detroit native who this semester was cleared to play following his transfer from Cleveland State. Williams scored in double figures in three of his four games.

Oakland also is turning the ball over 14.3 times a game, 255th-fewest in the nation. There's just not enough firepower to make up for losing, say, a quarter or so of its possessions, especially with the offseason departure of Jaevin Cumberland to Cincinnati.

So, in a rarity for Oakland, it's defense or bust these days.

"I feel like we're prepared for it this time," said Antoine Davis, whose team in the new year has four wins and four losses, all of the losses by an average of 2.75 points. "We have a much better chance."

Oakland at Detroit Mercy

Tip-off: 7 Friday, Calihan Hall, Detroit

TV/radio: Ch. 38, ESPNU/910, 1130

Records: Oakland 7-15, 2-7 Horizon League; Detroit Mercy 6-16, 4-5

Outlook: Oakland won the first meeting of the season between the rivals, 78-69 on Dec. 28 at the O'Rena in Rochester. ... Oakland has won 11 of 13 meetings since joining the Horizon League.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984