There was no question that former McDonald's All-American Ray McCallum Jr. took a bit of a leap of faith two years ago when he spurned powerhouse programs such as UCLA, Florida and Arizona to play for his father, Ray McCallum Sr., at Detroit.
He's grown consistently in his first two seasons on campus, and was surrounded by some quality talent. On Tuesday night, it all came together on the biggest of stages for a program that won only seven games just three years ago in McCallum Sr.'s first season at the helm, and faith was rewarded.
McCallum Jr. came alive with a sensational, emotionally-charged second-half performance in the Horizon League championship game, and led the Titans to a 70-50 upset of host Valparaiso. In turn, Detroit heads to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.
In the end, the Titans unseating Butler as the Horizon's rep in the field of 68 isn't all that shocking. They were picked second in the league's preseason poll. But it seems like an unlikely finish considering the odd rash of injuries and absences the program had to endure this season, which at one point left them with eight active players in late November.
After a 78-73 loss in their last trip to Valpo on Feb. 2, the Titans, back near full strength, went on to win six of their last seven regular season games to earn the tournament's No. 3 seed.
The Titans struggled to overcome their nerves in the first half, and despite getting out-rebounded 23-13 before the break and shooting just 29 percent from the floor, they only trailed by three heading into the second stanza.
And that's when Detroit's unquestioned star rose to the occasion.
McCallum scored 15 of his 21 points after the break, but his impact on the game went well beyond that number.
He led a spirited defensive effort that helped the Titans look more comfortable and confident on the offensive end, as they finally put the Crusaders on their heels and eliminated the home court edge.
McCallum's emotions were on his sleeve, too, as he was clearly the most locked-in player on the floor. He yelled and shook his head after made buckets, interacted with the crowd and even shouted into an ESPN camera heading into a media timeout. Yet, he still produced at an efficient rate, including the sinking of several crippling mid-range jumpers.
His final stat line included six rebounds, four steals and three assists. And, say what you will, he opted to throw down a slam at the buzzer after dribbling out the final seconds of the game clock, drawing a faint chorus of boos from the remaining Valpo faithful.
McCallum Sr. was shown by ESPN cameras looking back at what his son had done in the final seconds while shaking hands with the Valpo staff, but any concern over it was squashed moments later when the two embraced and went to celebrate with the swell of Detroit students who traveled for the game.
The Titans head to the dance at 22-13, and even though they were looked at before the season as a potential mid-major sleeper, their numbers entering Selection Sunday (RPI: 136), likely mean they'll draw a 14- or 15-seed.
And among the 14- or 15-seeds unveiled on Sunday evening, expect the Titans to be the most dangerous.
Beyond McCallum, they have an elite shooter in Jason Calliste, a match-up nightmare in wing scorer Chase Simon and a pair of physical bigs in Eli Holman and LaMarcus Lowe.
And they're also armed with a nice story, which should make the McCallum's easy for the casual fan to pull for should they pull off an even bigger upset a week from now.
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