CLEVELAND - Several years ago, an assistant who worked for Dan Dakich came back from a recruiting trip and told the Bowling Green State University head coach that a certain high school player from the tiny Michigan community of Wyoming was not worth pursuing - the kid just wasn't that good.
Tonight, Dakich takes his 13-15 BG team against that very player - Central Michigan's 7-foot Chris Kaman - in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Gund Arena.
Kaman has been named the MAC player of the year and the MAC defensive player of the year. He led the conference in shooting (63.4 percent) and blocked shots (84), and was second in rebounding (12.2 per game) and scoring (22.5 ppg). Kaman's rebounding numbers place him third in the nation.
The assistant coach who assessed Kaman's potential no longer works for Dakich.
“Kaman is problematic because of his size, but moreso because he plays the game like a guard - with great bounce and great energy,” Dakich said. “But you're not talking about a guard here. This is a guy who is seven-foot and 260 pounds, with great skills and exceptionally good athletic ability.
“When a kid has those physical attributes, and plays with the enthusiasm that he plays with, you have a great player.”
Kaman led the Chippewas (21-6) to the MAC regular-season championship, and they hope to ride his wingspread to the tournament title and grab the NCAA Tournament bid it carries. Most MAC observers expect this to be the last go-around for Kaman, a junior who is likely to enter the NBA draft in June.
“I don't know for sure what makes an NBA player these days or what makes a first-round draft choice,” Dakich said, “but I think I know what it takes, and if he isn't one, then I don't know what is.”
Dakich said Kaman runs as well as any big man he has seen, and plays defense with a tenacity that seems to dictate the way his team will play.
“He is not one of those lumbering big guys,” Dakich said. “Kaman is ahead of the action in transition, and if he's not ahead of the action, then he is catching up. If a big guy is fast and plays like he does, it's unbelievable what he can get done.”
Kaman scored 110 points in a three-game span late this season, and went out with a bang by scoring 34 points and grabbing 22 rebounds while playing just over half the game in the regular-season finale at Ball State - with a dozen NBA scouts watching.
“I have a vote for All-American on a couple of different things, and I voted him as a first-team on every one of them,” Dakich said. “I think he is that good.”
Kaman, who grew from 6-2 to 6-7 between his freshman and sophomore years in high school, then stretched to 6-11 between his sophomore and junior years, turned some heads with his 30 points, 21 rebounds and five blocked shots in a win at Michigan early this season.
“When he came into our place as a freshman, I thought he was great,” Dakich said. “The first time I saw him on tape, I told our team that this is going to be the team that wins the league, and that Kaman is going to be the best player in the league.”
Kaman led Central Michigan to a 14-4 MAC record this year and its second conference championship in his three seasons in Mount Pleasant.
“I've tried to play hard every night and not worry about the scouts or who might be watching,” Kaman said. “To play the game your best, you have to be focused on nothing else but playing hard.”
CMU head coach Jay Smith said he saw a lot of potential in Kaman when he was playing for Tri-Unity Christian, a private school in Michigan's smallest division.
“When we recruited him we thought he had the agility to become a good player, and we thought he had the passion to play,” Smith said. “That is something that separates him from a lot of people. Guys his size - seven-footers, 6-10 kids - they like to lay around on the couch too much. You almost have to beg them to play, but not him.
“If you watched him play, it didn't take too long to figure out that he had a chance to be pretty good if he got his footwork down and got some consistency to his game.”
Dakich said the Central Michigan supporting cast makes Kaman that much better.
“They have a bunch of guys who know their roles and excel at those roles,” Dakich said. “Obviously Kaman's role is the main deal, but any time you have a winning team, you have guys who have been asked to play certain roles, and they do it. That is why they have a team that is as good as any team that has been in this league since I have been around it.”