Detroit Mercy could make Horizon League history…in the wrong way

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Detroit Mercy head coach Mike Davis gives instructions to his team in the first half against Youngstown State, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, at Calihan Hall. Photo: Detroit Mercy Athletics/Jose Juarez

At the start of the 2003-04 season, Cleveland State, under first-year head coach Mike Garland, showed a lot of promise, culminating in giving North Carolina a serious scare in one of the rare times the Tar Heels traveled to a mid-major arena for a game.

But a 50-point beatdown at the hands of Kent State on wintry December evening proved to be the start of what would become a 23-game losing streak, something I’ve referred to as the Viking Death Spiral. The streak set a Horizon League record for futility, and it also marked the last time a team went winless in conference play. The only other time was Xavier in the inaugural season in what the league was then known as the Midwest City Conference, with the Musketeers going 0-5.

20 years later, while it’s not entirely clear if Detroit Mercy will, in fact, go 0-for-the-conference, the Titans are at risk of setting the Horizon League winless streak mark this week. Ironically, they face CSU, which would tie the record, should Detroit Mercy lose. If that happens, the losing streak “crown,” if you will, could be snagged in the return match against Robert Morris, a team that the Titans had every chance to beat in Moon Township but ultimately dropped in double overtime.

All of this has happened to Detroit Mercy less than a year after Antoine Davis caught the eyes of the nation by pursuing one of the biggest records in all of college basketball: the scoring mark long-held by Pete Maravich.

Now, all the records the nation looks at for the Titans are ones no team wants to go anywhere near. Should things continue as they are, Detroit Mercy could flirt with the NCAA record for losses in a row during the season, held by the transitioning NJIT at 29 in 2007-08 season, and total losses, set at 31 by the 2011-12 Towson squad.

While nobody actually believes that the Titans will go winless, their hopes grow dimmer and dimmer as the season wears on. Put quite simply, do YOU want to be the team that lost to Detroit Mercy? Such a thought will provide extra motivation to triumph and avoid that fate, especially because losing would also mean a significant drop in the ever-important NET rankings.

This could have been avoided

During the course of this season, there have been four occasions in which the Titans could have prevailed, even as they’ve dropped the remainder of their games by double digits. The first opportunity was at Ole Miss, in which a last-second shot didn’t fall, and the Rebels would prevail and so far, has stayed undefeated at home, even in the tough SEC. You could speculate that had Detroit Mercy won, it could have changed the trajectory of the entire season.

There was also the game against Ball State. Ahead at halftime, the Titans tried to fight the Cardinals throughout the second half and nearly succeeded, up one with a minute and a half left in the game.  Ball State won, though, as a Jayden Stone three-pointer to force overtime fell short.

Fast forward to Detroit Mercy facing perennial Horizon League powerhouse Northern Kentucky. By all indications, the Norse were expected to run the Titans out of the gym. Instead, UDM kept the game close, and it was tied with 2:08 left in the game. But some costly miscues at the end were Detroit Mercy’s ultimate undoing.

And then there was the aforementioned game at Robert Morris.

It defies explanation that the Titans were up 11 with 7:03 left and had basically held the Colonials at bay until that point, only for RMU to rally back and force overtime. In the first extra frame, Detroit Mercy had another chance to hit the final shot and once again, it didn’t happen. That gave Robert Morris enough to press on in the second OT and deny the Titans.

The 2023-24 season has become, in a sense, a point of morbid curiosity for college hoops observers. For the Detroit Mercy’s fans, however, there’s little curiosity at all, as attendance at Calihan Hall as dropped to below 1,000 and is the second worst in the conference.

Where has it gone all wrong for the Titans? While it may be a little early for a post-mortem, fans can point to a few areas already.

Who’s on this team? Who knows?

Titans head coach Mike Davis has used the transfer portal extensively throughout his time in Detroit. And it looked as if, at least on the surface, that UDM would have some notable players come down the pike early on, specifically Jay Allen-Tovar and Jadan Coleman. But seemingly at the last minute, those two players jumped back into the portal, leaving Davis and his staff scrambling for replacements until September.

Eligibility, an issue that bedeviled the Titans last season, as they had to wait an entire semester before they could get double-double machine Gerald Liddell, has reared its ugly head once again. Alex Tchikou, a two-time transfer whose last stop was at Rhode Island and who was looked upon by many Detroit Mercy fans as a key piece in the frontcourt, hasn’t played a single second, even as the NCAA’s two-time transfer waiver rules have effectively been wiped out to give players in that situation the green light to play.

Also slated to be a part of the roster before the season started was Sonny Johnson, Jr., the redshirt freshman who sat out due to a lingering hip issue that required surgery. But he also would be a scratch for this upcoming campaign, as his injury issues persist.

Even during the season, with another Titan tormentor, injury, making a return this year (more on that in a moment), Detroit Mercy was still trying to make roster additions, a rarity in college hoops. But add the Titans did, and Michael Oaks, a 6-10 prep school forward, came on board just in time for the Loyola Marymount game that he was able to join, as his prep school was Southern California Academy.

Still, that hasn’t stopped yet one last departure, as Oton Jankovic, the 6-10 big man from Croatia by way of Tulane, left the team, and Donovann Toatley, another scoring and point guard option, is also no longer with the team, as mentioned by Panthers play-by-play announcer Wayne Larrivee during his call of the UWM-UDM contest.

The struggle to stay healthy

Detroit Mercy has to be one of the most cursed teams in the Horizon League when it comes to injuries and illnesses. Even Davis himself quipped about this strange phenomenon during the conference’s Media Day in Indianapolis, as it was something that he had to contend with in the five years he had Antoine on the roster.

So far, it hasn’t gotten any better. In fact, only Marcus Tankersley and Kyle LeGreair have played in every game. Emmanuel Kuac was already recovering from a previous injury when he transferred, and it’s still hampering him. Stone, far and away the best player on the roster, had to sit out with an ankle injury he suffered against LMU.

Jankovic, prior to his departure, dealt with injuries sustained off the court. Toatley had a combination of injuries and illness to keep him out. Even Mak Manciel, Tyree Davis and Eduardo Del Cadia couldn’t escape the injury bug, both sitting out one game apiece.

To make matters worse, injuries have also robbed the Titans of a pair of players for the remainder of the season, with sharpshooter freshman Ryan Hurst and junior Trenton Johnson scratched for the duration.

Such issues, as mentioned, aren’t new for Detroit Mercy, especially in the Mike Davis era. The difference this year has been that there’s no Antoine Davis, who, in spite of the perpetual injury problems the Titans faced, spent his entire college career relatively unscathed. This is obviously not the case now, and without that level of stability, there’s no hiding the impact.

For those scoring at home, UDM had 11 scholarship players to start the season. One (Tchikou) hasn’t played at all. A 12th scholarship player (Oaks) was added in December. Two (Toatley and Jankovic) are gone. Hurst is out, as is non-scholarship player Johnson. That leaves eight scholarship players, and four walk-ons: Abdullah Olajuwon, Jamail Pink, Tobin Schwannecke and Jonathan Ammori, the latter two of which rarely play.

Who are the other scoring options?

When the season started, it was clear that the primary scoring option was Stone. However, who else was going to be Stone’s complement was pretty up in the air. Conventional wisdom pointed to Tankersley, whose progression in the previous campaign led him to playing a key role in a near-upset at Youngstown State in the Horizon League Tournament. Toatley also made a case as an offensive contributor, before he was gone, as did Del Cadia.

But in Stone’s absence, it wasn’t clear at all who would take over the scoring mantle consistently, with four different leading scorers while he was away, including the now-injured Hurst and the departed Toatley. Even in his return, a consistently second scorer has proven elusive. And while Tankersley remains the likely Robin to Stone’s Batman, he’s suffered from scoring droughts at times and streaky shooting behind the arc (he’s shot 23.3% so far this season), both of which have proved costly.

And who on earth is rebounding the ball?

Detroit Mercy clearly has the frontcourt scheme going differently before the season started. In the original history, Tchikou and Tovar would take the bulk of the responsibility in the paint and on the glass, and Jankovic and, eventually, Kuac would be a piece off the bench. But with Tovar gone, Tchikou’s eligibility up in the air, and Kuac still limited due to his injury, Mike Davis had to go to Plan B, which turned out to be Del Cadia and Tyree Davis coming in, with Jankovic still coming off the bench.

As with everything else this year, nothing has really gone to plan. Kuac’s injury rehab has resulted in missing nearly all the non-conference games and, as mentioned, is limiting his minutes during the conference slate, even though he currently starts. Jankovic’s time was limited before his injury, and when he went down, his minutes went to Oaks, then went back to Jankovic when he came back. Now that Jankovic is gone, Oaks is back in the rotation. And Tyree Davis’ playing time has been dictated by who else was active, as has Olajuwon.

Del Cadia, as a consequence, has, with the exception of the most recent game at Green Bay, been the primary rebounder for the Titans. The problem is, though, that he has a serious problem with staying out of foul trouble and has been forced to sit stretches of multiple games because of that and other reasons that are known only to the coaching staff. So, of course, the patchwork that Mike Davis has tried to construct for his frontcourt rotation has been regularly put to the test and failed.

What happens next?

Unlike last season, when Green Bay sent Will Ryan packing mid-season, there’s no indication that’s in the cards for Detroit Mercy. So, whatever happens for the remainder of the year, it will be with Mike Davis and his staff at the helm. And as dreadful as this season has been, it’s not clear if there will be a change coming, at least on the coaching front.

For the roster, it’s a much different story. Jankovic and Toatley are already gone, and Del Cadia will be out of eligibility. Plus, there’s no certainty that Stone, Kuac or LeGreair, who have an extra year, will return, either. Any of the remaining players could weigh their own options as well, meaning losing one or more to the transfer portal is a possibility, as has become a reality in college athletics these days.

In other words, it’s more likely than not that the Titans will be on the hunt for a boatload of players once again. If past off-seasons are any indication, Detroit Mercy fans will again be in for months of wondering who exactly is on the roster, who’s going to run into eligibility issues, and if they’ll be able to avoid the injury bug that has long plagued the Titans in the Mike Davis era.

And even if no records for futility are broken, the prospect of yet another rebuilding job with a staff that led this season’s disaster probably won’t be all that appealing to the Detroit Mercy faithful. In addition, should UDM move on from Mike Davis (which, again, may not even happen), it will be athletic director Robert Vowels making the call on the next coach, a prospect that fans may also take issue with, given how things have gone both on the men’s and women’s sides (Kate Achter being the noted exception).

So, it appears that Detroit Mercy will be in between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Should the university punt on a decision until next year, there may only be Book Guy left in the stands.

If that happens, I suggest as a reading recommendation for next season Hannah Jameson’s “The Last” or, for more classical fare, Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man.”

Realistically, though, it’s time for everyone to decide what the next step is. A coach like Mike Davis, who’s been to multiple NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four with Indiana, can’t be satisfied with this seemingly never-ending madness. Perhaps it’s time to ride off into the sunset. There’s nothing left to prove.

Of course, if Detroit Mercy opts to stick with Vowels as athletic director, given how all but one of the recent hires have panned out, Titan fans could be in for even more pain. Maybe it’s time for UDM’s president, Donald Taylor, to evaluate that situation as well.

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