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The Rise of Central Michigan and Redemption of Keno Davis

The year was 2008. Drake head coach Keno Davis had just led the Bulldogs to a 28-5 record and an NCAA Tournament berth as a No. 5 seed. Following a successful season, Davis was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year, and looked to be one of the best young rising coaches in college basketball.

That’s when the Big East called.

Following the 2007-08 season, Davis left the Missouri Valley Conference for the big stage — at that time the Big East Conference — and was named the head coach of the Providence Friars.

Davis looked to be on top of the world. He was coaching in the best conference in college basketball, and had all the resources and benefits that came along with the job.

But Davis’ honeymoon didn’t last long.

After only three seasons at Providence, Davis was relieved of his job because of mediocre recruiting, poor on-court performance and off-court issues that marred the program.

Davis left Providence and joined the Big Ten Network as an analyst for the 2011-12 season, waiting for his chance to jump back into coaching.

After a season away from coaching, Davis received the opportunity he was waiting for in April 2012. On April 3, 2012, Davis was introduced as the head coach at Central Michigan. He faced a total rebuilding project, but all that mattered to Davis was the chance to return to the sidelines.

Davis inherited one of the youngest teams in the nation to start the 2012-13 season, with only four players returning from the previous season — all of which were reserves.

Because of the lack of upperclassmen talent, Davis was forced to play young, inexperienced players during his first two seasons at CMU, resulting in the Chippewas going 21-41 and winning only seven conference games.

However, instead of searching for junior college prospects or transfers to try and speed up the rebuilding process, Davis decided to instead build around young players Chris Fowler and John Simons.

14 March 2015:  Buffalo Bulls F Will Regan (2) is called for a foul against Central Michigan Chippewas F John Simons (34) during the MAC Men's Basketball Tournament Championship game between the Buffalo Bulls and Central Michigan Chippewas at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH.  Buffalo defeated Central Michigan 89-84.

14 March 2015: Buffalo Bulls F Will Regan (2) is called for a foul against Central Michigan Chippewas F John Simons (34) during the MAC Men’s Basketball Tournament Championship game between the Buffalo Bulls and Central Michigan Chippewas at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH. Buffalo defeated Central Michigan 89-84.

The result? After two losing seasons full of bumps and learning opportunities, the Chippewas won 23 games — a 13-game improvement — during the 2014-15 season and won the Mid-American Conference regular season title.

In one season, CMU went from being the laughing stock of the MAC to being a borderline NCAA Tournament at-large berth team.

And guess what — this season, the Chippewas look to be even better.

Once inexperienced and young, CMU now features one of the most experienced teams in the country. The Chippewas return all five starters from last year’s team, as well as four other rotation players.

Furthermore, Fowler and Simons have blossomed into stars under Davis, and are poised for huge senior years.

Fowler is a MAC Player of the Year candidate and is the conference’s best point guard. He led the conference in assists (6.1 apg) last season, and led the Chippewas in scoring (16.2 ppg).

His ability to drive to the basket and either score or kick the ball out to a open teammate makes him the perfect point guard for an offense that is loaded with perimeter shooters.

And none of those shooters are better than Simons, who shot at a clip of better than 45 percent from deep last season. Simons is the perfect complement to Fowler — a stretch forward who helps space the floor, allowing Fowler to go to work in the lane.

Davis’ commitment to sticking with Fowler and Simons and building the team around his two best players has allowed CMU to grow into one of the best mid-majors in the nation.

In an era of instant gratification in which one-and-done players and transfers are at an all-time high, Davis shows that you can still build a program by developing players.

And while major programs — the Wildcats, Jayhawks and Tar Heels of the world — may be able to get by relying on one-and-done players, mid-majors like CMU must still focus on long-term recruiting and player development in order to stay relevant.

Entering year four, it’s obvious that Davis has rebuilt the program the right way at CMU — from the bottom up. If other mid-major programs want to build a successful team, they should follow in the Chippewas’ footsteps and take notice to what Davis has accomplished in three seasons at CMU.

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