Detroit may be next Cinderella on the horizon

With his entire roster returning and a pair of potential NBA draft picks in the starting lineup, Ray McCallum should be breathing easy in the months leading up to the 2011-12 college basketball season.

Instead …

“I’m still trying to get our schedule completed,” the Detroit coach said. “Our first year here, everyone was lining up to play us. But now … .”

Detroit is hardly the pushover it was when McCallum arrived in 2008-09. The Titans went just 7-23 that season and only won two conference games. Somehow, though, just three years after toiling at the bottom of the Horizon League standings, Detroit has a realistic shot at finishing at the top.

Ray McCallum was just 7-23 in his first season at Detroit in 2008-09, but he has turned the Titans' program around.

With Butler losing Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard off last year’s NCAA runner-up squad, there’s a good chance the Titans will be the preseason pick to win their first conference title since 1999. That was also the last time Detroit appeared in the NCAA tournament.

“We can’t stand hearing about Butler,” sophomore point guard Ray McCallum Jr. said. “We have a lot of respect for them, though, and for what they’ve done. It helps our conference and makes our league better. But we don’t want them to do it again.

“We want it to be our turn.”

With six seniors and a McDonald’s All-American in McCallum Jr., the Titans boast enough talent, experience and depth to make the upcoming season a special one. The question is whether they can put it all together.

This same group of players finished a mildly disappointing 17-16 in 2010-11 while going 10-8 in the Horizon League. McCallum’s squad didn’t fare well against the conference’s top teams as Detroit was swept by Butler, Milwaukee and Valparaiso and split with Cleveland State.

“When you’re building a program and taking positive steps and making a steady climb, you want to get a little bit better every year,” McCallum said. “That’s what we’re in the process of doing.”

It hasn’t always been easy.

When McCallum – the former Ball State and Houston coach – inherited the program in 2008, the Titans were in major need of a “culture change.” Talent was certainly lacking, but he said the biggest problem was his players’ mental state.

“They didn’t think they could win,” McCallum said. “They didn’t think it would ever happen.”

Detroit didn’t do much to dispel those beliefs during that dreadful 2008-09 season. But the following year the Titans won 20 games and secured a huge commitment from McCallum Jr. The head coach’s son picked Detroit over schools such as UCLA and Arizona.

McCallum Jr. led the Titans in points (13.5), assists (4.9) and steals (1.6) as a freshman last season.

“He learned a lot last year,” McCallum Sr. said of his son. “He did a great job handling everything: The McDonald’s All-American tag, being the face of a program, being a coach’s kid – all while playing the toughest position in college as a freshman.”

McCallum Jr. is hoping for even better things as a sophomore. He spent last weekend at the Deron Williams Skills Academy in Chicago, where he competed against nationally known college stars such as Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin, Terrell Holloway of Xavier and Scoop Jardine of Syracuse.

Point guard Ray McCallum Jr. – a McDonald's All-American in high school – had a big freshman season playing for his father at Detroit.
(US Presswire)

“I think I stacked up right there with them,” said McCallum Jr., whose main goal this offseason is to improve defensively while increasing the accuracy of his jump shot. He shot just 31.2 percent from 3-point range last season.

McCallum Jr. isn’t the only player capable of garnering national attention if Detroit has a breakthrough year.

Eli Holman, a 6-foot-11, 255-pound center, averaged 11.8 points and 9.6 rebounds last season. Holman began his career at Indiana when McCallum was an assistant there under Kelvin Sampson. Holman transferred shortly after new coach Tom Crean was hired and will always be remembered in Bloomington for throwing a potted plant across the office of the Hoosiers’ new head coach.

McCallum said he believes Holman – who is on pace to graduate – has NBA potential. He said he is more than capable of averaging a double-double as a senior.

“He’s really grown up,” McCallum said. “He understands the commitment level he has to have on and off the floor. He’s got a clear vision of what he wants to achieve.”

Other returning starters include guard Chase Simon, who tied McCallum Jr. for the scoring lead last season; wing Chris Blake, who has adapted to the tougher competition after transferring from a junior college a year ago; and forward Nick Minnerath, who started every game last season and averaged 11.2 points. Three-point specialist Jason Calliste will also play a big role for a team that averaged just 2,474 fans in 2010-11.

Creating a tough home-court advantage will be imperative if the Titans hope to upend Butler as the best team in the Horizon League.

“What Brad Stevens and Butler have done have helped the Horizon League,” McCallum said. “They’ve given us credibility. In our first year, selling the Horizon League to recruits was tough sometimes. Now we say, ‘We’re in a conference with Butler.’ Everyone knows Butler because they’ve been in the championship game the last two years. That’s really helped us.”

McCallum Jr. said he hopes a different school will represent the Horizon League in the NCAA title game in April.

“We’ve got six seniors and our entire roster back,” he said. “Why not us?”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jun 27, 2011