Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene is cold-blooded.
For proof of his swagger, look no further than his audacious 3-pointer late in a close game against Green Bay, the deep bomb he splashed in after spinning and dribbling the ball behind his back, the one that made his defender look helpless and immediately went viral on Twitter.
Once overlooked and underappreciated because of his 5-foot-9 stature, Keene is now one half of the nation’s highest-scoring backcourt. The former Youngstown State transfer is averaging a national-best 31.9 points per game this season, 5.5 more than second-place Alec Peters of Valparaiso.
Keene’s remarkable start to the season puts him in position to achieve something that no college player in 20 years has done: average 30 points per game. Since Long Island’s Charles Jones put up 30.1 points per game during the 1996-97 season, nobody has eclipsed 30 points per game again — not Adam Morrison, not Doug McDermott, not even Stephen Curry.
“I’m really just speechless,” Keene told Yahoo! Sports on a phone call from the airport while waiting to board a flight home for Christmas. “It never came across my mind that I’d be averaging 30 points through twelve games. It’s crazy.”
Had Keene remained at Youngstown State his entire college career, he likely wouldn’t have been featured the same way he has at Central Michigan. Penguins coach Jerry Slocum used Keene off ball as an undersized shooting guard and he averaged 6.5 points as a freshman and 15.6 as a sophomore.
When Keene decided to transfer somewhere that would use him as a scoring point guard, the most appealing destination was a school he lit up for 24 points and five 3-pointers during the 2014-15 season.
In Keno Davis’ five seasons as head coach at Central Michigan, the Chippewas have ranked in the top 10 nationally each season in percentage of shots taken from behind the arc. Davis’ pitch to Keene was simple: Come here and do something different. Come team with Braylon Rayson, another high-scoring small guard, in a fast-paced, 3-point happy offense.
“It’s really shocking to a lot of people that we have two 5’9” guards out there at the same time,” Rayson said. “We’re doing something different. Like you might see one of them out there, but two of ‘em? That’s different.”
Keene and Rayson are the biggest reasons Central Michigan is off to a 9-3 start that includes four victories in which the Chippewas eclipsed 100 points. The explosive duo makes up for its defensive shortcomings by averaging 49.4 points combined, taking care of the ball and putting constant pressure on opposing defenses, forcing them to adjust.
“Really, nobody can guard us,” Rayson said. “I don’t care who it is. One-on-one, I don’t think nobody can even try to guard us. I think now, more colleges are going to go for the little guards instead of the 6-5 guards. I think the little guards, we got more edge because we’ve been small all our life. And we want to kill people that are 6-5.”
Keene was already an elite shooter when he arrived at Central Michigan, but he spent his redshirt year working out and getting stronger in the weight room. Now he is better able to get to the rim, draw fouls or finish through contact, as evidenced by his efficient field goal percentage of 50.8 and the fact that he’s shooting more than eight free throws per game.
Keene and Rayson are having fun. They’re winning. And Keene has a chance to make history by becoming the college basketball player in two decades to average 30 points per game.
“It would be something that I would like to accomplish,” Keene said. “But if I don’t, it’s okay as long as we’re winning. I still want to win. Winning comes first. I really want to get to the NCAA tournament. If I average 29 at the end of the year but we get to play a game in the NCAA tournament, that’s what I really want to do.”