Guards help lead Wayne State men to first sole GLIAC crown in 22 years

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

David Greer thought his Wayne State men's basketball team was a year away from being in this position. That position is sole Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champions for the first time since 1999.

But when you have dynamic guards, anything's possible.

"We had some really good guards, and any time you've got a good backcourt, you've got a chance," said Greer, who's in his 20th season as the program's head coach.

"We played a lot of close games, and have been able to win a number of those."

The Wayne State men's basketball team celebrates its conference championship Saturday.

Wayne State (12-5) clinched the championship in the regular-season finale Saturday, with a 70-68 victory over 2018 national champion Ferris State in the men's program's final game at Detroit's Matthaei Center. This fall, the Warriors move into a new $25 million arena that they will share with the Pistons' new G-League affiliate.

The rest of this season's games will be on the road, starting Thursday at John Friend Court in Hammond, Indiana, site of the GLIAC tournament. Wayne State got a first-round bye play an opponent to be determined by Tuesday's games at campus sites.

Then it's possibly onto the Division II NCAA Tournament, which will be played this season after last year's tournament was canceled by COVID-19.

All in a year Greer really didn't know what to expect, especially give the roster issues the program faced — including three players who opted out this season because of the pandemic. Those included 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward James Gordon IV, a Toledo transfer who was Wayne State's third-leading scorer (13.0) and leading rebounder (7.9) last season; and Oakland transfers Jackie Harris, forward, and Kenny Pittman, guard. Harris played early in the season before opting out and leaving the program.

"That was a universal thing. There were a lot of kids uncertain about whether they wanted to participate," Greer said. "So we were a little short."

But it quickly became evident the Warriors, playing the GLIAC's conference-only schedule, had something.

Brailen Neely, a Detroit native and former Oakland guard, was back for a second season at Wayne State, and was joined by guard Darian Owens-White (River Rouge), who missed all of last season with a foot injury.

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Both are sons of basketball coaches, and both are used to playing the point. Neely, a redshirt senior, has mostly taken that over, while Owens-White, a redshirt junior, has played more off the ball. And it's worked. They're Wayne State's leading scorers, averaging a combined 34.3 points. 

"I think sometimes, they tried not to get in each other's way," Greer said. "Probably seven or eight games in, they really figured it out.

"And consequently, that's when we went on our run."

Wayne State went 9-2 over its last 11 games, thanks in large part to redshirt sophomore forward Avery Lewis (Ann Arbor Huron), who transferred from Saginaw Valley State, another DII school, which meant he had to sit out last season.

Lewis is averaging 13.4 points and a team-best 7.6 rebounds, but has mostly made his impact on defense, guarding players 3 or 4 inches taller than his listed 6-6 frame — a measurement Greer calls "generous."

Former Oakland guard Brailen Neely has found a home playing the point for Wayne State.

Rounding out the rotation are junior guard Antonio Marshall (Detroit King), sophomore forward Kylin Grant (Detroit Renaissance) and freshman swingman Ray Williams Jr. (Detroit Edison).

"The thing that's really made this season such a puzzle is last year at this time, they were closing basketball down," Greer said. "From this time last year through the summer, I never really saw our guys. They were taking online summer-school classes, our facility was shut down, they couldn't lift, normally we'd have open at our place.

"I really didn't know what to expect. It's been a pleasant surprise."

The same, really, can be said for the conference as a whole. On the men's said, 101 of 108 scheduled games were played (Wayne State missed only one), though Davenport and Northern Michigan have opted out of the tournament.

And, unbelievably, on the women's side, all 108 games were played.

Wayne State had an advantage on the medical front, being affiliated with the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System. Testing wasn't as much of a cost burden as it has been for other schools, and the Warriors basketball players were able to be tested six days a week.

The Wayne State women's team (11-7), meanwhile, was to host Lake Superior State (1-17) in the opening round of the GLIAC tournament Tuesday night.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984