Every elite offensive player makes life easier for their head coach. Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer at 29.8 points per game, does that and then some for Central Michigan coach Keno Davis.
Keene is perhaps a few weeks away from becoming the first college basketball player in two decades to average at least 30 points per game for a season. But it’s the way that Keene has been racking up his ungodly amount of points that might be the most unusual thing about his breakout season.
Watch any Central Michigan game and it will become abundantly clear within the first 20 minutes that the Chippewas offense is essentially this: Give the ball to Marcus and let him cook. It sounds lazy when you spell it out that way, but the fact of the matter is that it’s an approach which gives CMU its best shot at winning games. That’s because Keene, despite standing just 5’9, is one of the best one-on-one players college basketball has seen in some time.
He doesn’t like using screens, regardless of whether he has the ball or he’s coming to get it. Marcus Keene wants to stare you down and then devour your soul. More times than not he’s successful. Keene has scored 298 points in pure isolation situations so far this season, according to Synergy Sports. If he were a team by himself, he would rank fourth in Division I in that category.
With still at least four games left in his junior season, Keene has scored 40 or more points on six separate occasions. The only other two players to do that in the last 10 years? 2011 national Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette, and a guy named Stephen Curry.
All this begs the question: Where did this dude come from?
For starters, he comes from San Antonio, where he put together a high school career that netted him zero stars from any recruiting services and precisely one Division I scholarship offer. Part of that is because he stood just 5’2 when he began playing for his high school’s varsity team. His size made the local paper of note, the San Antonio Express-News, dub it “Keenesanity” when the youngster started dropping gaudy numbers on local opponents.
The other answer is Youngstown State, the school who tossed Keene his lone D-I lifeline. He averaged 6.5 points per game for the Penguins as a freshman, and then led the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game a season later. Citing a desire to play in a system that better suited his game, Keene announced his intent to transfer following the 2014-15 season. He found the perfect fit in CMU and Davis’ free-flowing, up-tempo style.
Marcus Keene from Central Michigan pic.twitter.com/Jq81IXsUsB— StreetHistory (@streethistory) December 7, 2016
"They play a very up-tempo style of play,” Keene said at the time. “That's my style of play, especially for my size, I've got to get up the floor. When we played them this year and seen the way they played and went up there for a visit, they showed me how I could fit into their system."
While practicing with the team during the season he was forced to sit out per NCAA transfer rules, Keene made it apparent to Davis that it would be more about CMU tweaking its system for its new star than the other way around.
Central Michigan runs everything through Keene. It’s why he’s capable of being on the verge of making scoring history without it coming at the detriment of his team. Keene shoots 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc. He leads the Chipps in assists at 5.0 per game, and despite his diminutive stature, is averaging a career-high 4.6 rebounds per contest.
"He's about as unselfish a 30-point scorer as you can have," Davis told ESPN. "He's a guy who is focused on winning. A lot of nights we need him to put up big numbers to win, but he fills up a stat sheet in a lot of other ways than just in those total points."
The season has also been a resurrection of sorts for Davis, at least from the standpoint of seeing his name in some form of national spotlight.
The 44-year-old pulled off the rarest of feats a decade ago, when he was named national Coach of the Year in his debut season as a leading man. After guiding Drake to a remarkable 28-5 run that year, Davis was given the reins at Providence, where he produced three far less spectacular years before being let go in 2011. He landed at Central Michigan, where he’s turned things around to the point that the team won 23 games two seasons ago and played in the CIT last year.
Still, the Chippewas haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003, a fact that isn’t lost on anyone associated with the program. That year, future NBA All-Star Chris Kaman led CMU to a first-round upset of sixth-seeded Creighton and then an appearance against Duke two days later. Kaman was the undisputed biggest name associated with Central Michigan hoops this century until Keene came around this season. Now the fans in Mount Pleasant are hopeful that the little guy can take their Chipps to the same place the big guy did 14 years ago.
Marcus Keene is going to make individual history, there’s no question about that. The only issue now is how far he’s going to take his team in the process.
“For an NCAA tournament game against Duke, Georgetown, anyone like that, I’ll trade all of it,” Keene said earlier this month. “I just wanna play in that national spotlight one time.”