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2016-2017 MAC Basketball Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas

To say last year was a down year is an understatement. But there’s a lot of hope for redemption in this Chippewa squad.

NCAA Basketball: Central Michigan at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Central Michigan Chippewas were selected to win the MAC West and to compete for the MAC Championship last season after making a magical run from worst-to-first in 2014.

Ultimately, an untimely injury to team captain Chris Fowler and a slow start to the season in neutral-site tournaments combined to ultimately doom the Chippewas, who just couldn’t get all their pieces moving in one solid direction, finishing 17-16 (10-8 MAC) and being eliminated in the first round of the MAC Tournament by upstart Bowling Green.

This year’s roster loses plenty of senior leadership, but gains some younger pieces and transfer help that could have the potential to score in bunches.

The guards will especially be hard hit, as Chris Fowler (currently with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants), Rayshawn Simmons (graduation) and Austin Stewart (eligibility out, currently on football team) will be gone from the roster this season.

Milos Cabarkaba, a 7’2”, 237 lb. Serbian product, transferred to Division II University of Indianapolis, leaving a loss of depth at the center position.

Marcus Keene, a 5-foot-9, 175 lb. guard from San Antonio, Texas, who averaged 15.6 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game and 2.8 assists per game with the Youngstown State Penguins in 2014-2015 in a stacked Horizon League leads the list of new faces in Mount Pleasant.

This season, three of the five starters from last year’s roster return to the starting lineup, with Braylon Rayson (16.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG last season), Luke Meyer (8.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 35 blocks) and DaRohn Scott (2.9 PPG, 3.1 BPG, 31 blocks) taking back their spots. Keene is largely seen as the replacement for Chris Fowler at the point, as he is known for being an assist machine.

Blake Hibbitts returns from a torn ACL to contribute as a rotation forward and brings much-needed experience for a young squad. Hibbitts has starts at power forward and center under his belt from the 2013 and 2014 seasons and has shown to be extremely reliable as a scoring option, preferring the 3-point shot as a stretch four, his most natural position. It’s unknown if he will return to the starting lineup, as he had become more of a sixth-man option prior to his season-ending injury.

Josh Kozinski, the 6-foot-4, 185 lb. guard/forward from Edwardsburg, Michigan, could take over the small forward position after years of coming off the bench as a three-point specialist. Kozinski averaged 8.0 PPG in 22 minutes per game last season in a sixth-man role, making 89 of his 234 three-point field goals, good for a 36.5 percent average.

There are a number of younger pieces that could see extended time on the floor this season.

Corey Redman, a 6-foot-6, 185 lb. guard from Boyne Falls, presents another scoring option for the Chippewas, with good length and size for a guard. In limited minutes, Redman was an incredible 15-of-27 from three-point range.

True freshmen David DeLeo, a 6-foot-7.5, 203 lb. forward that shot 45 percent from three in high school; Kevin McKay, a 6-foot-4.5, 210 lb. guard that received Detroit Free Press All-East Honors while at Warren De La Salle; and Ellis Jefferson, a 6 foot, 175 lb. guard from San Antonio, Texas, a former member of the D-I Ambassador adidas U17 squad and three-year starter at famed Brandeis HS could all see some time on the floor as well.

The Chippewas were tabbed to finish last in the MAC West in the Preseason Media Poll, but did receive two first-place divisional votes and a MAC Championship vote, an ode to their potential if all goes well.

That being said, time will tell if the pieces will mesh for the Chippewas, whose success will largely depend on coach Keno Davis’ up-tempo three-point offense. The schedule is favorable for CMU, with many winnable matchups and no exhibitions after the season-opening tilt against Slippery Rock. (Last season, CMU was forced to play two due to scheduling conflicts.)

The offense, as previously mentioned, largely kept CMU afloat in a back-and-forth season. Per Sports Illustrated, CMU will enter the year as 51st in the country in offensive efficiency, a testament to their three-point shooting prowess.

For the Chips to improve, defense will have to be a focus point. CMU was one of the worst teams in the country in defensive efficiency last season in a league with over 300 D-I squads. There were many games last year where CMU built up leads only to squander them on the other end. CMU will have to clean up their mistakes and be more vigilant in transition if they hope to improve on those numbers from last season.

The Keno Davis Experience is very much working, but this season will be full of growing pains, as most of the Ernie Ziegler-era recruits will be gone and Davis will be working his recruits into his system. CMU will be an entertaining team to watch, regardless.