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State hoops: New-look CMU finding cohesiveness early, despite lack of practice time

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

We all know it's been a year unlike any other. 

For the Central Michigan men's basketball, that's been taken to the extreme, with head coach Keno Davis having to replace his top four scorers from a year ago — forwards David DiLeo and Rob Montgomery, and guards Dallas Morgan and Kevin McKay. Davis and his staff in Mount Pleasant did their best to plug the gaping holes, mostly via the increasingly active transfer portal.

Coach Keno Davis, shown here in a game last season,  has Central Michigan off to a 5-4 start this season.

But a team of so many new faces that needed to practice as much as possible wasn't able to practice as much as possible. Thanks, COVID.

So it's taken a bit of time to get things going with the Chippewas, who might've finally found something in Tuesday's 87-60 victory at Eastern Michigan. It was an impressive bounceback from their first Mid-American Conference game, a 76-61 loss to rival Western Michigan on Dec. 18.

"It takes time when you've got a large group of newcomers, but I think if you look around the landscape of college basketball this year, across a lot of different leagues, teams aren't playing at the level that maybe they would in a different year," Davis said. 

"We haven't had the opportunity to really work as individuals or as a team."

You don't have to tell Eastern Michigan that. The Eagles had played just one Division I game since Dec. 4 before playing Central Michigan, thanks to a lengthy shutdown because of COVID-19, and it showed in Tuesday's game.

Central Michigan (5-4, 1-1), so far, as avoided a COVID-19 outbreak of its own, but had a breakthrough against Eastern Michigan.

The Chippewas were impressively cohesive, with passes so crisp, you'd think this group had been playing together for years, not weeks. The game was close at halftime; if not for a whole bunch of missed free throws, it would've been a laugher at halftime.

The main holdover from last season, when the Chippewas had big-time postseason aspirations before injuries derailed a season that didn't have much of a postseason anyway, is guard Travon Broadway Jr., who's averaging 15.7 points, more than double his output from last season. He made a fantastic hustle play against Eastern Michigan, draining a 3 and then slyly circling back to the basket to pick off the inbounds pass and laying it in. That was five points in the span of about 3 or 4 seconds.

"You remember those plays a lot more when you're the other team, and they're doing it against you," Davis said with a laugh.

The newcomers are led by former Iowa JUCO star Caleb Huffman, who's averaging 12.4 points and shooting better than 40% on 3's and better than 60% overall.

Meikkel Murray, a JUCO transfer from Kansas, is averaging 12.1 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds, while freshman Aundre Polk, a Detroit native who played at SPIRE Academy, is averaging 8.9 points and 5.1 rebounds.

Forward Ralph Bissainthe, a transfer from Florida Southwestern College, and three more holdovers, Matt Beachler, Devontae Lane and former Detroit Edison star PJ Mitchell, round out Davis' rotation, which handled Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy's notoriously difficult zone defensive in impressive fashion Tuesday. And the Chippewas did some disruption of their own on defense. That's a difference from recent seasons, when Central Michigan has been high-octane on offense and lacking on defense. 

You can't read everything into Tuesday's game. Eastern Michigan didn't play well, at all. The Eagles are better than that. But you could still see Central Michigan's strides, which were tougher to uncover during a relatively weak nonconference schedule.

"We have more guys that can make a difference on both ends, not just on offense and not just on defense," Davis said. "With this class coming in, I knew talent wouldn't be the issue. It was just gonna be about how long it would take, without as much practice time. I felt like we could continue to get better if we could stay healthy, and you're starting to see that. The season wasn't lost when we lost our first conference game, and we don't have all the answers just because we played well in the second game." 

Slam dunks

►Central Michigan returns to action at 7 Friday at Akron, with the schedule getting a little shuffling. Because of COVID-19 issues at Buffalo, Kent State and Miami, the MAC did some rearranging. Friday's game was moved up from Tuesday, with Saturday's home game against Miami postponed. Eastern Michigan's Tuesday road game at Buffalo was postponed, and replaced with a home game against Akron, and Central Michigan's road game against Bowling Green was moved from Jan. 9 to Tuesday.

That's life in the era of COVID-19. Stay flexible.

"Take care of yourself the best you can," Davis said of his message to players. "We can't do anything about if our opponents get shut down."

►The 16th-ranked Michigan women's team was set to return to the court Thursday at home against Wisconsin. The Wolverines (5-0) haven't played since a Dec. 9 win against Butler because of a COVID-19 pause, costing Michigan Big Ten games against Illinois and Penn State. This was to be Michigan's first conference game. Ohio State also hasn't played a Big Ten game, postponing its first three, including Thursday's scheduled game against No. 25 Michigan State. 

►Oakland hopes to get 3-point threat Blake Lampman back for this weekend's home series with preseason favorite Wright State. Lampman missed the two weekend wins over Detroit Mercy with a severely bruised thigh suffered in a game at UIC. He shot better than 35% on 3's last season, but is under 20% this season.

►Fan cutouts have been all the rage in this era of COVID-19, and Michigan State's fan game has been impressive. Tom Izzo ordered a cutout for every single player he's coached as head coach of the Spartans.

►Speaking of Izzo, do yourself a favor and check out the cool interview he did with his former Michigan rival, John Beilein, who now works for the Big Ten Network. It's nearly 20 minutes of mutual admiration.

State power rankings

MEN

1. Michigan (7-0)

2. Michigan State (6-3)

3. Oakland (2-9)

4. Central Michigan (5-4)

5. Western Michigan (2-5)

6. Detroit Mercy (1-7)

7. Eastern Michigan (2-3)

WOMEN

1. Michigan (5-0)

2. Michigan State (7-0)

3. Central Michigan (4-2)

4. Eastern Michigan (4-3)

5. Oakland (3-4)

6. Western Michigan (1-3)

7. Detroit Mercy (1-7)

Games of the week

MEN

►Wright State at Oakland, 7 Friday and 5 Saturday (ESPN3)

►Central Michigan at Akron, 7 Friday (CBSSN)

►Michigan State at Nebraska, 8 Saturday (BTN)

►Northwestern at Michigan, 7:30 Sunday (BTN)

►Rutgers at Michigan State, 9 Tuesday (ESPN2)

WOMEN

►Green Bay at Oakland, 3 Friday and 1 Saturday (ESPN3)

►Central Michigan at Ohio, 1 Saturday

►Michigan at Northwestern, 5 Saturday (ESPN2)

►Michigan State at Purdue, 2 Sunday (BTN+)

►Bowling Green at Western Michigan, TBD (ESPN+)

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984