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Published: Wednesday, 1/9/2013

Central Michigan brings 5-1 MAC mark to Savage Hall

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

For the past 14 years Central Michigan has been the biggest basketball wasteland in the Mid-American Conference.

The Chippewas have won just 26 percent of their MAC games during that stretch, compiling a 54-154 record for four head coaches.

The last time the school had a winning record was in 1987-88, finishing 19-13 in Dan Majerle's final season before he became a first-round NBA draft pick.

Central Michigan's fortunes finally appear to be changing, thanks to fourth-year coach Jay Smith, the former University of Michigan assistant who had a 21-60 won-lost record at the school entering this season.

Smith's first-place Chippewas (11-4, 5-1 MAC) will roll into Savage Hall for tonight's key MAC West Division showdown with the University of Toledo (12-5, 4-2) riding a four-game winning streak.

The Rockets have dropped two in a row and fallen into a second-place tie with Ball State (9-6, 4-2) in the West, mostly because of horrendous shooting.

How is Smith's team handling its new-found success?

“I don't think the players understand it yet, to be honest with you,” he said yesterday. “We don't talk a lot about it. We just talk about the game ahead of us while preparing and making sure we have our focus and concentration.

“Somebody asked me, `Have you let up and smelled the roses?' Heck, we haven't even seen roses yet. We're a long ways from it. There's a lot of games to be played. I think people are making too big a deal of us and where we're at right now.”

Central Michigan, which won at Purdue 67-66 in November, needs only one more win to double last year's victory total of six.

Despite their success this season, the Chippewas have dropped 16 straight decisions to UT, including eight in a row at Savage Hall.

“I think we had lost 15 in a row to Eastern Michigan, and I think we had lost 10 straight years at Western Michigan,” Smith said. “And we won both of those games (this year).

“You can go back to the record books, there weren't a lot of beautiful things happening here. We don't really talk about streaks. To me, it's a new team, a new year. We've got new players and we look to move forward with that.”

Smith said being in first place at this point really doesn't mean a lot, since CMU and UT will each have 11 conference games remaining after tonight.

“It's where you end up in the end that is important. There are too many good teams in the conference for us to be feeling good about ourselves right now.”

David Webber, a 6-2 guard who is the brother of former Michigan and current NBA star Chris Webber, leads the MAC in scoring with an 18.9 average. No player from CMU has led the conference in scoring since Majerle averaged 23.7 points as a senior.

CMU also is getting valuable contributions from sophomore forward Chad Pleiness, who shot 60 percent from the floor in three wins last week; senior point guard Tim Kisner, No. 4 on CMU's career assists list; freshman forward Chris Kaman, a 7-footer who is averaging 10.7 points in MAC play; and sophomore forward Mike Manciel, the 1999 freshman of the year, who is averaging 9.2 points.

“They have a good team,” UT point guard Terry Reynolds said. “We're really going to have to play well to beat them.”

Smith is just thankful he'll be able to be on the CMU bench tonight. Eleven days ago he collapsed during the Buffalo game when his leg suddenly went numb.

“I couldn't stand and (assistant coach) Mike Montgomery kind of caught me,” Smith said.

Smith had extensive testing done last week and expects to get the results back tomorrow.

Through seven home games the UT men's basketball team is averaging 6,402 fans per game, ranking second behind Ohio among the 13 MAC schools.

Ohio is averaging 7,257 fans through five games.

At the same point last year UT was averaging 4,949 fans per game at Savage Hall, and finished the season with an average of 5,799.

The Rockets are 5-2 at home with last-second losses to Xavier and Ball State.



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