Niyo: Detroit Mercy basketball revival a family project for Davis clan

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Antoine Davis and Mike Davis.

Detroit — To fully understand what Antoine Davis is doing here — Detroit Mercy’s freshman guard is turning heads as the nation’s second-leading scorer — you should first understand what his father, Mike Davis, the Titans’ new head coach, has done to get here.

Because this father-son story, while “it’s unique, for sure,” as Antoine says, is hardly an accident.

The beginning might have been, after Mike Davis was thrust into the national spotlight in 2000, replacing Bobby Knight at Indiana after the legendary coach was fired. Davis shed the interim tag after that first season and led the Hoosiers to the national title game the following year — heady stuff for a first-time head coach. But Davis never truly escaped Knight’s shadow — he never was fully embraced by an unforgiving fan base, either — and he resigned under fire in 2006.

More than a dozen years later, sitting in a conference room inside Calihan Hall, Davis rubs the palms of his hands over his eyes as he hearkens back to that surreal time in his life, when a dream job fell out of the sky and landed like an anvil on his head.

“My first job at Indiana was just on-the-job training,” said Davis, now 58 and flanked by another son, Mike Jr., who played for him at Indiana and UAB before joining his staff as an assistant coach. “My whole time there, it’s like it never happened, to be honest with you. It’s like someone you know, but you don’t see ’em anymore.”

Still, that estranged memory frames everything that has happened since in his coaching career — the six years at Alabama-Birmingham, where he won 22 or more games four times, and the half-dozen after that at Texas Southern, where his Tigers earned four NCAA Tournament bids. Davis went from using a private plane to fly around the country wooing blue-chip talent at one of the game’s premier programs to cutting his own practice video clips and recruiting by phone in the Southwest Athletic Conference.

“And I think that’s prepared us for everything,” Mike Jr. said. “Because we know what it’s like at the top, and we know what it’s like at the bottom. So there’s nothing you can throw at us that we haven’t prepared for or seen.”

Perfect fit

Even this latest move back to the Midwest, where Davis is tasked with trying to revive a mid-major program with major self-identity issues here in Detroit. The Titans were a combined 16-47 the last two seasons and have made just one NCAA trip in the last 20 years. And just to complicate matters, after Detroit Mercy athletic director Robert Vowels finally convinced Davis to take the job in mid-June — the two were neighbors in Birmingham, Alabama, years ago when Vowels was the SWAC commissioner — there was the small matter of trying to piece together a roster from scratch in a matter of weeks. With only four returning players, Davis scrambled to add a collection of transfers, junior college players and late prep commits.

“A lot of people I knew that were familiar with the program said I was crazy,” Davis said. “But I like it when people say that. Because they don’t know where I’ve really been. Their crazy is not my crazy. My crazy is when everything’s going perfect.”

So maybe this really is the perfect fit for Davis and his sons. Mike Jr. was pushing his father to take on a new challenge with nothing left to prove at Texas Southern. (Only Gonzaga has a better conference record over the last six years than the 88-20 mark that Davis’ teams posted in the SWAC.) And Antoine was ready to start his college career playing for his father as a preferred walk-on. Yep, the nation’s second-leading scorer isn’t even on scholarship right now.

That decision came after he’d initially committed to play for Houston, where head coach Kelvin Sampson, whose nationally-ranked Cougars are off to a 16-1 start, was Davis’ successor at Indiana and remains a close friend. It also came after a late push from some other high-major coaches, including Georgia’s Tom Crean and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl.

“But I didn’t even take those visits,” Antoine said. “The reason I got my release was to play for my dad.”

Truth is, his dad might one of the reasons he wasn’t more heavily courted in the first place. When I ask him how he handled his son’s recruitment, Davis laughs before answering.

“Poorly,” he said. “But I guess you can say we hid him in plain sight.”

And that’s also true. Davis was home-schooled and didn’t play his senior year of high school. He only spent one summer on the AAU hoops circuit, finally drawing some attention — Oakland’s Greg Kampe was among the first to call expressing interest — while playing alongside four-star recruits like Javonte Smart (LSU) and Jacobi Gordon (California) with the Houston Hoops on the Nike EYBL tour.

“But I kept trying to convince other schools to recruit him, and they were saying he was too small, wasn’t strong enough,” his father said of Davis, who is 6-foot-1 and barely 160 pounds. “They were telling him to go to prep school for a year and then come back.”

Antoine, who spent most of his teenage years training at the Houston facility run by former NBA player and coach John Lucas, wasn’t much interested in going that route, though.

“I just knew I was ready for this, and that this was gonna work out,” he said. “Because of the preparation we put in and all of the hours and hours and hours in the gym.”

That’s no exaggeration, either. Being home-schooled allowed him to hit the gym 2-3 times a day, and for Davis, an off-day meant putting up 1,000 shots. Once Antoine and his brother, a two-year starter at UAB who graduated with a degree in philosophy, heard about Kobe Bryant’s 2,000-shot workouts, they decided to up the ante.

“In order to be different you’ve got to work different,” Mike Jr. said.

“So we did 5,000-a-day for a couple months straight. We actually shot 10,000 one day, without a gun, just my dad and I rebounding.”

Senior of sorts

That last one was not entirely planned. But after Antoine had trouble sleeping at night, they decided to head back to the gym at 1:30 a.m for a third workout session, shot till 5 a.m., “then we got some doughnuts, went home and went to sleep,” Mike Jr. said, laughing.

“It’s easy to rebound for him,” he adds. “He doesn’t miss much.”

No, he doesn’t, which is what the college basketball world is quickly discovering this winter.

Davis is averaging 27.7 points per game, second only to Campbell’s Chris Clemons (29.6) nationally. He has led the Titans in scoring in 17 of their 18 games thus far, topping 30 points eight times and 40 points twice, including a 48-point night that saw him tie his own school record with 10 3-pointers in the conference home opener against Wright State on Jan. 3

He also is shooting 42.1 percent from 3-point range, putting him on pace to break Steph Curry’s Division I freshman record for made 3-pointers (122) and at least threaten Curry’s single-season mark of 162. (Davis has 90 with 12 regular-season games remaining.)

But he’s leading his team in other ways, too.

And after a rocky start — not unexpected considering his son’s face was about the only one Mike Davis recognized when practice started this fall — the Titans find themselves on top of the Horizon League standings with a 5-1 record heading into Saturday afternoon’s showdown with Oakland at Calihan.

“It’s like I’m a senior, because I know what he wants and what he expects,” Antoine said. “So I just help them figure out what they need to do. …

“When he yells in practice, I just tell them you can’t listen to how he says it — it’s what he’s saying. You can see that guys are starting to figure out what their role is, and we’re starting to jell a little bit as a team.”

And while the larger goals are still a long way off — getting to the NCAA Tournament first, Antoine says, “and turning this into a winning program again” — he’s enjoying seeing all that hard work starting to pay off.

“This,” he adds, nodding,”is what we came here to do.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo