CMU adds star of yesteryear to scout team in preparation for mighty Iowa

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

You can't simulate what you're going to face in Iowa.

But the Central Michigan women's basketball team has been able to come pretty close in recent practices, thanks to some support staff with game.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, the Big Ten freshman of the year, and junior center Monika Czinano will be huge challenges for the Chippewas at noon Sunday in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in San Antonio. The two combine to average more than 46 points and 11 rebounds.

Central Michigan's Micaela Kelly and coach Heather Oesterle at practice in San Antonio this week.

"We know we're not going to be able to take everything away," second-year Central Michigan coach Heather Oesterle said. "We're going to have to pick and choose.

"Our offense is going to be OK. but we've gotta string together some stops against a very good offensive team."

The numbers suggest so. Central Michigan (18-8) had the second-best offense in the Mid-American Conference (77.9 points), but the second-worst defense (73.8).

Iowa (18-9), at 86.6 points, had the second-best offense in the Big Ten. Sophomore swing McKenna Warnock (11.8 points) and sophomore guard Gabbie Marshall (9.3 points) add depth.

The Chippewas focus remains on Clark. Oesterle considers her one of the top three guards Central Michigan has faced this year, along with Michigan's Naz Hillmon and Czinano. 

To simulate Clark and Czinano, Central Michigan's scout team added a pair of operations staff members. Former Chippewas star Reyna Frost (director of player development) and CMU sophomore Jerod McCullen (student manager, whose dad is the girls basketball coach at DeWitt) were drafted. They do anything and everything behind the scenes for the program, Oesterle said, including hooping it up.

Central Michigan's playing roster — at eight for the tournament, with several freshmen still out due to COVID-19 contact tracing — performed well against Frost, McCullen and Co. Frost remains a force, two years after earning MAC player of the year and All-American honors. She's the program's all-time leading rebounder, and 12th in NCAA history.

"Reyna definitely hasn't lost it," Central Michigan senior guard Micaela Kelly said. "She's still got the hook, can still shoot the 3.

"She's a coach, at the age of a player."

Denying offensive rebounds will be a big key for Central Michigan, which can't give Iowa an extra possessions. At one point during a recent scrimmage between the starters and the scout team, the starters gave up three in a row — all to Frost.

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The starters still beat the scout team, but there were times of competitiveness. Assistant coach Gail Goestenkors, formerly head coach at Texas and Duke, got the first film scout.

The Chippewas are buoyed by the fact they are not some anonymous mid-major. Central Michigan is playing in its third consecutive NCAA Tournament. In 2019, the Chippewas beat Power Fives LSU and Ohio State to make the Sweet 16. Then in 2020, they lost to Michigan State in the opening round by a point.

"We've been there before," Kelly said. "Coach and I have discussed it. I know that obviously, they're a good team.

"At the end of the day, this is every other game."

Central Michigan has its own dynamic duo, in Kelly, out of Detroit King, and sophomore guard Molly Davis, out of Midland Dow. They were both first-team all-MAC, and have combined to average more than 44 points a game.

Senior forward Kyra Bussell (Grand Rapids Catholic Central), junior center Jahari Smith and redshirt sophomore guard Anika Weekes could play even more pivotal roles. They're three of Central Michigan's leading rebounders, while Kelly and Davis hold their own on that front, too.

Senior guard Maddy Watters (Rockford) is an outside threat, which is why she'll be heading to Indianapolis for Final Four weekend to participate in the 3-point contest.

But there's more immediate business for the Chippewas.

"I just felt like all year, I wanted it so bad for them," Oesterle, in her first NCAA Tournament as a head coach, said of her seniors. "Just to go out on a high note.

"I want this experience to be really good for our players." 

Women's NCAA Tournament

No. 6 Michigan (14-5): vs. No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast (26-2), 3 Sunday, Convocation Center, San Antonio (ESPN2)

No. 10 Michigan State (15-8): vs. No. 7 Iowa State (16-10), 6 Monday, Alamodome, San Antonio (ESPN)

No. 12 Central Michigan (18-8): vs. No 5 Iowa (18-9), noon Sunday, Alamodome, San Antonio (ESPN)

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984