Detroit Mercy contemplates its future without Antoine Davis

Photo courtesy of Detroit Mercy Athletics

In a season that started with immense hope and aspirations finished with a missed three-pointer away from history. The roller coaster that was The Detroit Mercy men’s basketball season was anything but traditional. The Titans finished 14-19 (9-11 Horizon League) and featured a historic season from star Antoine Davis (28.2 PPG) as he came within an additional 3 pointer to his career 588 makes from tying Pistol Pete Maravich’s all time points record.

While the year couldn’t have gone better for Davis and his retired #0 jersey individually, the most decorated player in Horizon League history walks away with zero NCAA tournament appearances and one winning season which begs the question; why wasn’t this the season that had the Titans breakthrough landing Davis in the tournament, and how will the Titans proceed in the post AD era?

Before questions about the future can be answered, one must journey back through with the team that just couldn’t seem to figure it out for long stretches of time. The Titans put out 10 different starting lineups in only 33 games and saw four guys who played significant minutes on opening night not even suit up in the last game of the season. Someone who did not watch this team a lot would think that this stat would make the team uncompetitive and just not very talented, which was not the case in any capacity.

 The team featured four former top 100 recruits and finished 5th in the Horizon in NET rankings, three spots above their finish in the standings while 5 games under .500. The Titan men also blew out Oakland on the road in Mike Davis’ signature win at UDM, took Boston College to the last possession, competed hard against Final Four participant FAU, took eventual champion Northern Kentucky to the buzzer twice and came up a few bounces short of playing spoiler to the No. 1 seed in the biggest game in Youngstown State history.

The Titans could play and there’s no doubt about it, but almost doesn’t lead to success in March. The regular season inconsistency did not put them in a position to make their road any easier. UDM finished the season with 10 losses by five or less points, seven of those in conference play, but only lost one game in conference by 10+ points all the way back in December in a 92-77 defeat at Cleveland State. These close losses tell the tale of how a season could have been different with just a few different outcomes including injury and eligibility issues, but no one can take away from this team that they were fun to watch.

A criticism of past teams in the Mike Davis era was the lack of a consistent complimentary scorer to Antoine. The Titans arguably had two of those this past season in junior guard Jayden Stone and senior forward Gerald Liddell. Though Stone had flashes with 5 games of scoring 20+ on over 50% shooting, eligibility issues ultimately kept the Grand Canyon transfer out through the second half of the season in sweats. Liddell on the other hand was the opposite, as the 6-8 forward from Cibolo, TX just outside San Antonio missed the first few games and then proceeded to go on a tear through the rest of the non-conference slate as well as conference play.   

The former Texas Longhorn and Alabama State Hornet saw an increase in almost every statistical category posting a career high in PPG (14.2), MPG (31.1) , as well as RPG (9.8) which would have been tied for first in the Horizon League and top 20 in the nation if he was eligible to be counted for national statistics (must play in 70% of games he played in 66%). This increase, which has been common in transfers in the Davis era, especially forwards (Madut Akec +10PPG 2021-2022, Bul Kuol +11 PPG 2020-2021), also saw Liddell average 3.9 offensive rebounds a game which would have been good for 6th in the country, right behind NKU’s Chris Brandon.

When asked about this increase and what impact Mike Davis’ system has had on him, Liddell reflected on his breakout senior season saying, “I think the main reason for my stat improvement is that my coaches and my teammates trusted me to go out and do what I do,” then elaborating further on Davis’ impact expressing, “Coach put me in great positions to succeed on the floor every night.” The UDM staff’s trust in Liddell paid off and when he was on the floor he made an impact down low whether that was on the wing defensively in the 1-3-1 matchup zone the Titans set up in, or showing off his mid post bag and cleaning up the glass on one of the 26.5 three- point attempts fired a game by the team.

Because players like Antoine aren’t going to come around again in this generation, players like Liddell are the difference between being competitive in this conference and not. This blueprint for building a team in the Horizon can be followed to a T in the portal era and players who get Power 6 game experience can be immediate impact players when they jump down.

While acknowledging the bigger stakes that come along with power conference basketball, Liddell credited the Horizon for its level of play adding, “I think the Horizon League has some players that can really play in any conference. I think that the biggest difference in the Big 12 and Horizon League is the physicality, and attention to detail.”

This speaks to the Horizon being underrated as a league which was seen through NKU’s first round game with Houston and the consistent underseeding every march. It’s clearly not the Big 12 with four- and five-star recruits slipping through the cracks because of the level of pro talent there is. However the bottom line is, Horizon League guys can hoop and the Titans are going to need to be active in the portal to continue to bring guys like Liddell to complete this model of success and compete for a trip to the dance.

Looking forward, the Titans roster is a little bit of a question mark. After a season highlighted by record setting shooting and unique wing play, Detroit Mercy is the only team in the Horizon League not bringing a player back who played over 20 minutes a game but that is not to say they don’t have any kind of foundation returning. After the eye opening transfer of Isaiah Jones (2.3 PPG, 10.8 MPG) to nearby rival Oakland the team will be more guard heavy and do not currently have a forward on the roster.

Guard’s Kyle LeGreair and Jamail Pink played very solid minutes when they were called upon and even started a few games, while Sonny Johnson will also be back in the lineup after missing all of his freshman season due to an injury. With the addition of transfer guard Jadan Coleman (Tulane) and incoming freshman Ryan Hurst (North Farmington HS) the Titans will have depth in the backcourt while also banking on the possible return of Jaden Stone as well as the much anticipated sophomore campaign of Marcus Tankerseley.

Tankersley only averaged 7 minutes and 2.4 PPG over the regular season, but an injury to TJ Moss in the regular season finale saw him score 26 points on 10-14 shooting in the 2 Horizon League tournament games including 3 steals in the first-round win over Purdue Fort Wayne. Tankersley has received early praise from those around the team and his fundamental play has instilled confidence in him from his teammates.

“I feel like he made a big impact for us and really brings it every day. A very hard worker and I know he will be very successful next season,” said Liddell of the freshman guard, which should reassure Detroit Mercy fans to some extent that while Elvis may have left the building in Antoine Davis, the ball may be in good hands in Calihan Hall. If the team can land a good big in the portal and Jayden Stone returns to the D, this team could finally push for a first-round bye.

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