As a fledging national basketball program, the University of Detroit Mercy men’s have turned their program around. It did not happen by happenstance; it was a collective undertaking by father and son, coach Ray McCallum and son (Ray Jr.).
Following an inspired effort where Detroit pasted Valparaiso 70-50 in the Horizon League Championship game at the Athletics-Recreation Center in Indiana, the Titans earned a spot in the valued NCAA March Madness Tournament.
The Horizon League conference tournament title was the first for the Detroit since 1999 and earned them an auto-bid to the tournament. This Friday the Titans will face No. 2 Kansas in Omaha, Nebraska in a first round matchup.
“We are playing against one of the best players in the country (Thomas Robinson) and a Hall of Fame coach in Bill Self,” said UDM coach Ray McCallum in an exclusive interview with the Michigan Chronicle. “That is the opponent we have and we will be ready to play them.”
Can Detroit (22-13) pull the upset over Kansas (27-6)? Seeded 15th, McCallum said he knew they would face one of the NCAA’s top ranked team.
“My players and staff know about Kansas and how good they are,” he said. “Their top five or six players are as good as any in the country.”
Coach McCallum knows he has a daunting task ahead of him and his team, but that is what the NCAA Tournament is all about.
The fans who gathered at Calihan Hall for the March Madness announcement wanted the Titans to be in the East Region to face No. 2 Ohio State at Pittsburgh because it is only a five-hour drive to the NFL Steelers home; conversely, it will be a 13-hour drive to Omaha.
Coach McCallum is hoping his 2012 Titans can duplicate the Perry Watson’s lead Titans upset over No. 5 UCLA, 56-53. That year, 1999, Detroit was a No. 12 seed. Now, 13 years later they will be making their first trip to the tournament against a No. 2 seed.
Detroit Mercy’s upset against Valparaiso before a raucous crowd of 4,258 brought the Motor City its third overall (1994, 1999) Horizon League title.
When Detroit beat Valparaiso, it just so happened to be the coach McCallum’s 51st birthday. He said, “That was the best birthday present ever.”
Hot as a firecracker are the Titans, but more importantly, Ray McCallum Jr. has been the linchpin who has thrust the Titans to “the Big Dance.”
Behind the superior play of Horizon League tournament Most Valuable Player sophomore Ray Jr., the Titans righted a ship that produced a disappointing start to the 2012 season.
“It has not been easy,” Coach McCallum said. “These men have played through suspensions, and injury. We lost one our best players, Nick Minnerath, to a knee injury and another, Chris Blake, to suspension.
“We have had a lot of things we have had to go through, but this team did not let it distract their purpose. As the season came to a close they realized their only chance for the NCAA’s was to win the conference tournament. It has been a grueling battle, but they have endured.”
Leading the way for Detroit has been super guard Ray McCallum Jr. He averaged 19.3 points per game in the four-game Horizon Tournament and was named to the All-Tournament Team. Ray Jr, has produced 10 games of 20 plus points and three straight.
“Ray Jr. has shown a spirit that even I did not have as a player,” said Ray Sr. “I always wanted to win as a player, but he has that special something. With all the injuries and other things, he has settled into a zone as the go-to guy. I think he has gained the trust of his teammates by the way he has played defense and his effort.
“I think he wanted to defer to his teammates, but as the season has evolved he has done the things needed to make his team a tournament squad.”
UDM’s fan base acknowledged the team’s effort as over 400 fans came out to witness the Titans selection process.