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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Central Michigan

Fresh off the back of the Preseason NIT, Xavier will refresh themselves with the least of the directional Michigan schools.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Louisiana State
I’m not deep in CMU basketball photos. Sorry.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

First off, sorry for the football picture. For whatever reason, the AP doesn’t send a lot of photographers to Central Michigan basketball games.

That reason isn’t actually that tough to discern: they’ve been bad at basketball for some time now. They’ve got the NCAA tournament once in the KenPom Era, and that was as an 11-seed in 2013 (though they did make good by knocking off the Big East’s own Creighton that year). They’ve made the top 100 in the KenPom just once since then, a weird blip in 2015 where they went from 286th the year before to 80th, then right back to 158th. Sustained success has escaped the Chippewas in any relevant time frame.

Tasked with changing all this is Tony Barbee. Barbee was once a rising star in the coaching ranks, having taken over UTEP’s head spot when he was just 35. Four years in, he had won 82 games and dragged them to an NCAA berth; he parlayed that into a contract from Auburn, where things didn’t go as well. His first game was a loss to UNC Asheville, he had a dude arrested for shaving points, and more than half the players he brought in over the course of his tenure were kicked off the team or transferred out.

Barbee’s teams at UTEP were lightning fast, generally playing within the top 20 in pace and employing a smothering defense. They forced bad shots and caused a ton of turnovers. He had trouble instituting the same style at Auburn, and, while his teams did defend the paint well, they were generally way too permissive from deep and forced very few turnovers. It’s tough to figure out a specific offensive strategy just from the numbers, though his teams have consistently been low in the nation in both 3P% and 3P rate.

Key departures

Your leading scorer is a bad place to start, and that’s exactly what CMU loses in Travon Broadway. He averaged 17.9/5.4/1.8, rarely turned the ball over, forced a bunch of turnovers himself, and got to the line well. His season was truncated by injuries and he chose not to use his extra year of eligibility when he could start cashing checks in North Macedonia. Wing Meikkel is definitely in the transfer portal, though at the time of this writing it’s not clear to me where he has landed. He offered 15.6 and 6.1 and led the team in FGA by a fair margin last season. He’s also a big piece to lose.

Guard Caleb Huffman put his name in the transfer portal, took it out, then put it back in like Murphy Lee, eventually taking his 13/3/2 to Nicholls State. Finally, 6’9” forward Malik Muhammad has decided he’s going to head out, choosing to start his career anew as a Southern Utah Thunderbird. He rebounded well at both ends of the floor, blocked a ton of shots, and started 14 games last year.

Key returnees

Devontae Lane should be back! He’s the team’s leading returning scorer and assist guy with a line of 8.5/3.6/3.1 last year. He also ranked 55th in the nation with a 3.6% steals percentage, made all the more impressive by committing just 2 fouls per 40 minutes. Sadly, he can’t shoot at all. Big man Aundre Polk shone in limited action last year. He got into fewer than half the team’s games, but he averaged 8.0 and 4.6 and couldn’t be stopped in the paint. He’s 6’10”, 210 and back as a sophomore this year.

With Muhammad gone, Ralph Bissainthe is the team’s best returning rebounder and rim protector. He’s a 6’8” rising senior who averaged 7.7 and 5.0 and posted a block% of 3.0%, which is good. His shooting line of .379/.324/.611 is not. Matt Beachler rounds out the meaningful returning guys. He’s an erstwhile sniper who shoots 30% on 233 career attempts from behind the arc. He averaged 6.8 PPG and hit 39 threes last year.

Incoming players

Jermaine Jackson, Jr. is a 5’10” guard coming in from LIU. He averaged 15 PPG there and has shot 35.3% on 283 three-point attempts in the last two years. He’s a reasonable but unspectacular distributor. Also joining is Miroslav Stafl, who is exactly a foot taller than Jackson (or at least listed as such). He’s a big man who played his first two years at Hartford, where he was a reliable scorer from the post and mid-range. He is miserable from the free throw line and does more work on the offensive glass than the defensive.

A couple more transfers - Ryan Wade, Harrison Henderson, and Oscar Lopez - appear to be more or less just depth guys. Central Michigan has zero (0) signees listed in their 2021 class.

Outlook

A team that was bad last year lost its three leading scorers and its most reliable rebounder. They’ve also replaced the coach and shored up the roster with some okayish transfers. I don’t see a path from today to competing for the league title this year for this team; it will be up to Coach Barbee to figure out what the future holds beyond that.