'We're dangerous': Back in postseason, Detroit Mercy basketball a scary foe as No. 5 seed
Detroit — There's some unfamiliarity, as well as some familiarity.
Detroit Mercy men's basketball is set to play its first postseason game in two years, after sitting out last year's Horizon League tournament as punishment from the NCAA over academic issues that predated the current coaching staff and roster.
Meanwhile, that first postseason game since a loss to Northern Kentucky in the 2019 Horizon League tournament quarterfinals will be against Robert Morris. It's the third consecutive meeting between the programs, after Detroit Mercy swept the final series of the regular season.
"I've never played anybody three times in a row," said Detroit Mercy's Mike Davis, who's in his 21st season as a head coach. "Three times in a row is difficult. Playing them one time is difficult."
Detroit Mercy (11-9, 10-6 Horizon) hosts Robert Morris (4-14, 3-12) at Calihan Hall at 7 Thursday night, the winner advancing to Tuesday's slate of games.
This is a matchup that's a bit closer than the 5-12 seeding suggests. Robert Morris is in its first year in the Horizon League and has had its struggles — plus it lost star AJ Bramah late in the season to transfer — and lost to Detroit Mercy by double digits both games. But in Saturday's game, Robert Morris did take an 11-point lead in the first half, and caused as much havoc defensively against Titans all-league point guard Antoine Davis that he's seen all season.
Davis scored 55 total in the two games, but on 15-for-40 (37.5%) shooting. Interestingly, Robert Morris mostly played him straight up, where most teams double-team him.
But what's different this year is when Davis is off by even a little bit, he's got a very good supporting cast of scorers. In the last two season, if Davis was off, Detroit Mercy usually had no shot.
"This is probably the most talented team that Detroit has seen in a while," Antoine Davis said. "From the point guard to the five and even the bench, this is a really talented team. And we always knew we were talented. We just needed to match the talent with effort.
"Besides just hitting shots, if we're playing hard, we're dangerous."
Detroit Mercy comes into the tournament having won 10 of 12 games, including once against rival Oakland, and once against league co-champion Cleveland State. Only Wright State, the other league co-champion, is as hot or hotter than Detroit Mercy, having won 10 of 11.
The hot stretch for the Titans follows a two-week layoff in January, when they canceled their series against UIC for player "mental-health" reasons (UIC was just coming out of quarantine, and the league was only going to make it a one-game series anyway) and the series at Milwaukee for contact-tracing reasons.
The break proved beneficial for Detroit Mercy, which had a lot of turnover on the roster over the offseason and little time to practice all the transfers together — 6-foot-11 guard Noah Waterman from Niagara; guard Matt Johnson, the Horizon League sixth man of the year, from St. Bonaventure; swingman Bul Kuol, a third-team all-Horizon League pick, from Cal Baptist; and guard Marquell Fraser, from Idaho — to go with the holdovers like Davis, forward Chris Brandon and guard Dwayne Rose Jr. and forward Willy Isiani.
"This is the team we envisioned from Day 1," Mike Davis said.
This is also the Antoine Davis that Detroit Mercy envisioned from Day 1.
Davis, who had a record-setting first two years with the Titans, got off to a slow start in 2020-21, was 5-for-41 (12%) on 3-pointers through six games, including games in which he didn't make any, against Michigan State in the opener (0-for-9), followed by games against Western Michigan (0-for-6) and Wright State (0-for-7).
In his last 13 games, he's 62-for-139 (45%) on 3-pointers, earning him late considering from league player-of-the-year honors that eventually went to Wright State's Loudon Love. Davis did earn first-team all-league for the third time in three seasons at Detroit Mercy.
"You know, I just didn't get down on myself, just stayed the course," Antoine Davis said. "I put in more work and just focused on my technique, and really just doing what I did to get to this point.
"Sometimes, it's just that great players struggle. The James Hardens, the Steph Currys, the Damian Lillards, really good guards struggle. The best thing to do is keep working."
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Keep working. Detroit Mercy gets to do that — and it's a blessing.
The Titans knew well before last season that they probably wouldn't be eligible for the 2020 postseason (an appeal to the NCAA did ultimately fail). That affected recruiting, and the team's mind set on the court. They played the entire season knowing when the last scheduled game was played, that was that.
This year, Detroit Mercy gets to be the first Division I team in the state to play a postseason game.
And if you ask around the league, it's not likely to be its last.
"Last year, we knew that once we played that last game, that was it," said Mike Davis, whose taken each of his three previous schools to the NCAA Tournament, nine times total, including a national-championship game appearance with Indiana. "It's good for our guys to get more games to play.
"We're dangerous if we're making shots and playing hard. We're definitely dangerous. We've just gotta get more energy and effort, and lock that in better and not relax.
"We can't do that."
Horizon League men's tournament
►No. 12 Robert Morris (4-14, 3-12) at No. 5 Detroit Mercy (11-9, 10-6), 7 (ESPN+)
►No. 11 UIC (9-12, 6-10) at No. 6 Youngstown State (14-11, 9-11), 8 (ESPN+)
►No. 10 Purdue Fort Wayne (7-14, 6-14) at No. 7 Green Bay (8-16, 8-12), 8 (ESPN+)
►No. 9 IUPUI (8-9, 7-9) at No. 8 Milwaukee (8-11, 7-10), 8 (ESPN+)
►Lowest remaining seed at No. 1 Cleveland State (16-7, 16-4), 7 (ESPN+)
►Second-lowest remaining seed at No. 2 Wright State (18-5, 16-4), 7 (ESPN+)
►Second-highest remaining seed at No. 3 Oakland (10-17, 10-10), 7:30 (ESPN+)
►Highest remaining seed at No. 4 Northern Kentucky (13-10, 11-7), 7 (ESPN+)
At Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Indianapolis
►Semifinal, 6:30 (ESPNU)
►Semifinal, 9:30 (ESPN2)
►Championship, 7 (ESPN or ESPN2)