By JERAMY STOVER, Sports Editor
Building a college athletic program takes time.Time to recruit players that fit the coach’s system and personality. And time to develop said players that can not only understand the coach’s system, but thrive in it.
In his third season running the University of Michigan-Dearborn men’s basketball program, head coach Taylor Langley has the team going in the right direction.
In the preseason Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference poll, the Wolverines were picked to finish fifth, two spots improved from last season. And to put the cherry on top, UM-Dearborn received a first place vote.
Langley himself admitted he doesn’t take much out of preseason polls and added the main focus is on the final poll. But you can’t help but recognize the fact that other coaches around the league are taking notice of what Langley is building at UM-Dearborn.
Last season was looking to be the best season in program history. But then a ruling handed down by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics brought Langley and his players back to a familiar place. The ruling vacated a handful of wins meaning the program record for victories in a season would not be broken and put the Wolverines on the outside of the playoffs.
It won’t take long for the Wolverines to reclaim both of those achievements. Because the Wolverines have the talent and experience to have success that no previous UM-Dearborn team has had.
But one thing Langley feels good about heading into the season with his team is the athleticism his players will bring to the floor every night.
“The one thing that should pop up in front of everybody is how much more athletic we are as a team from top to bottom compared to where we were last year,” Langley said.
One of the most athletic players on the team is senior Marcus Williams. A 6’7 frame that can move quickly on the court, Williams has a skill set that paired with his measurements that make him a conference player of the year contender. Williams led the team last season in points per game with 15.8 which was best for sixth in the conference last season.
Langley talked very highly of his senior leader and said Williams had a really strong summer.
“Marcus can be an All-American if he wants to be. His talent level is insane and as long as he can stay confident in his abilities and stay confident in himself he’s going to be fine,” Langley said. “I think Marcus has the type of talent you need to have as a player to be conference player of the year.”
Williams surprised some teams last year in his first season with the Wolverines. This season that won’t be the case, but the senior is good enough to make that not matter. To go along with Williams is junior Jason Penn and sophomore Xavier Crofford, who Langley said will be a tough trio to go against.
Two other returning players to keep an eye on are junior Deonte Bell and sophomore Alex Hagel. Bell is looking to have his first fully healthy season. When he returned to the lineup midway through last season he brought much needed depth to the Wolverines rotation. With some roster spots opening in front of him, Bell might find himself higher on the rotation and see more minutes.
Hagel is another younger member of the Wolverines squad looking to gain more playing time. He didn’t lack it last season being one of the better shooting forwards. As a freshman Hagel was fifth on the team in points per game and second on the team in field goal percentage. He is still recovering from a foot injury he suffered over the summer and may miss a few games early on. Whether he misses full games or not, Langley said they will ease the sophomore into the rotation.
That wasn’t the only thing the head coach said about the sophomore. Hagel was another player Langley singled out as having a productive off-season.
“I was really impressed with Alex Hagel’s summer, unfortunately he had the setback with the foot, he’s just now starting to recover and starting to run and jog and hopefully we’ll have him back soon, but I would have to say we’ll have to see how he recovers from the foot, but to me it was gonna be Alex Hagel who was gonna surprise some people because his improvement has been great before he got hurt,” Langley said.
New Kids in Town
A group of players that could very well put the Wolverines into conference championship contention is the newcomers to the team. There are four players entering the UM-Dearborn program – two of which are college transfers.
Senior Jeff Cain will be new to UM-Dearborn but is familiar to the WHAC coming over from Aquinas. Cain averaged 4.5 points per game in the 2014-15 season for the Saints and had 19 steals for third best on the team. Langley said Cain has caught on fast and plays to what the culture is at UM-Dearborn by playing hard and playing good defense.
“I think Jeff is going to make a big impact right away, his I.Q. understanding of the game, his ability to defend and willingness to be a passer, move the ball being unselfish, those things are huge,” Langley said.
Mafiaion Joyner is a transfer from Kellogg Community College where he led the team in points per game last season with 17.3 and knocked down 37.1 percent of his three point shots. The 6’4 junior guard will bring size and scoring ability to the Wolverines lineup.
Cody Kegley and Dallas Froberg are the high school recruits looking to earn playing time from the veterans. While the two will look to avoid being redshirted, Langley did hint that with the depth of the team it might be a possibility. Kegley is known for his shooting ability, but what might earn him playing time this season is his hustle.
“I think Cody Kegley as a freshman is going to surprise a lot of people and turn a lot heads, he is a really good shooter and his motor just runs, I don’t know if I’ve met a freshman who plays as hard as he does coming in to college, usually it takes guys a while for guys to figure out ‘hey you have to play this hard to compete’. Cody only has one speed and that’s top speed,” Langley said.
But perhaps the most dynamic player that will be see game action for the first time as a Wolverine is Ashton Curd. He is in his second season with the program but sat out last season due to transfer rules. Even last year players were raving about Curd’s abilities. And heading into this season Langley was singing the same tune.
“I think (Curd) is going to be one of the most dynamic guards in the league in terms of athleticism and his ability to dominate games on the defensive side of the ball, as well as his offensive abilities,” Langley said. “The thing about Ashton, I don’t know anybody who wants to win more than he does and it shows in the way he plays.”
Tough Way to Finish
While UM-Dearborn opens their season with three straight road games, I believe the toughest part of their season comes in the final four games – which may be crucial games in terms of playoff seeding. The stretch begins Feb. 8 at Cornerstone, a conference powerhouse. Then the Wolverines travel to rival Madonna and finish with back-to-back home games against Northwestern Ohio and Aquinas. All four of those teams made the conference playoffs last season and the last three teams will be battling for playoff seeding along with the Wolverines.
Obviously the Wolverines would like to end the regular season with an easier path but it might be a good thing for them to finish with good competition to keep them playing hard. If the Wolverines do indeed make the playoffs it’ll be beneficial to play better teams in the conference to help UM-Dearborn play at their highest level.
The Wolverines certainly have what it takes to be a playoff team and with solid play and some luck UM-Dearborn could find themselves starting the conference tournament on their home floor. The ceiling is very high for this team. I have no doubts they (re)break the program record for wins and show everyone that last season wasn’t a fluke.
This team has plenty of talent and brought back most of their roster. Sprinkle in a couple new players with collegiate experience and they have the depth to take on anyone in the conference. One thing Langley praised about his team is the chemistry the players have on and off the court. And that chemistry just might be the extra ingredient the team needs to not only compete with the best, but beat them as well.