MUNCIE, Ind. — The nation’s leading scorer was playing for Central Michigan on a gimpy ankle and had not been able to practice for two days. So all Marcus Keene could manage Tuesday night at Ball State was 29 points, eight 3-pointers and seven assists.
“He wasn’t quite his normal self,” coach Keno Davis would say when it was over. “It’s exciting to be able to see what kind of player he’s going to be.”
Right. All 5-foot-9 of him.The Chippewa junior is averaging 28.7 points a game. The next closest in the nation at 23.9 is Valparaiso’s Alec Peters — who is one foot taller — so unless something changes, Keene will be one of the shortest players ever to be national scoring champion. And won’t that be a fine answer to all those who have ever doubted him, thinking size was supposed to matter.
“I’ve had that my whole life,” he was saying. “I know people don’t expect me to do what I’m doing, and I want to prove everybody wrong.”
Or as Davis said, “I’m sure he’s heard it his whole life, probably up to this year.”
A word or two about the scoring champions’ fraternity. It is an eclectic group, filled with some names we remember, and some names we don’t. Guys from big schools of tournament repute, and small schools with none.
You have to go back 65 years to find the one and only scoring leader to play for a national champion — Clyde Lovelette, who averaged 28.6 points a game for Kansas in 1952 and had 33 in the title game win over St. John’s. He had a long NBA career and then ended up a county sheriff.
It’s been 57 seasons since the only other scoring leader to play in the Final Four; Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson. Only 17 times in 78 years has the leader even showed up in the NCAA tournament. LSU’s Pete Maravich was a three-time scoring champion who put up averages of 43.8, 44.2 and 44.5 that wowed the record book but never got him to March. Steph Curry and Davidson advanced to the Elite Eight the year before he became the leader. The year he was, they ended up in the NIT.
Then there are guys from where the lights aren’t so bright. LIU Brooklyn’s Charles Jones is the last man to average 30-plus for a season, back in 1997. Howard’s James Daniel was last year’s leader and came back this season, but he has played in only two games because of recurring ankle issues.
Jones is back in Brooklyn coaching kids — he still goes to LIU games — and has worked with young players such as St. John's freshman Shamorie Ponds.
And it’s been 12 years since Saint Peter’s Keydren Clark went back-to-back. His first scoring title, he was listed at 5-foot-8. The next, at 5-foot-9. That makes him the shortest leader ever. He’s still playing in Greece.
And now here’s Keene, who could look Clark in the eye. A few things to know about his story:
He’s a San Antonio product who ended up the middle of Michigan, after transferring from Youngstown State in Ohio.
He might be the nation’s scoring leader, but he’s also second in the Mid-American Conference in assists. “That basically says I’m not a selfish person,” he said. “When people watch me, they see I score and pass. Just not scoring. I want people to always know I’m still a point guard first.”
Not all his shots are taken from the same zip code. His shooting range? “I really don’t have a range. When I cross half court and I have that rhythm, I feel comfortable shooting it.”
He has sensed a change in the opposing defenses lately. “I can tell they take it personal to try to stop me, or take it personal to try to get in my head, fouling me harder than normal. But that’s what comes with scoring the ball and getting the recognition, so I’ve just got to play through it.”
In three recent games, the 5-foot-9 guard from Central Michigan went for 29, 27 and 28 points. No, not Keene. The other 5-foot-9 Central Michigan guard. That’d be senior Braylon Rayson, who is also a native Texan. The two played against each other in AAU as high schoolers.
To those unfamiliar with Central Michigan, the two can be a little hard to tell apart. Rayson wears No. 2, Keene No. 3. Both come to work in black headbands. When Keene launched a long-range missile to open the Ball State game, the public address announcer proclaimed, “3-pointer by Rayson.”
“I don’t think that’s the way you draw it up as a coach, as far as in your recruiting — like, `Hey, we want to start two 5-foot-9 guys out there,'” Davis said. But his system is open to such a thing. He started three point guards and won the MAC regular-season championship in 2015. “It’s given us a recipe for success, and it’s also helped us be able to recruit the Marcus Keenes and the next guards who want to be able to play a true up-tempo style.”
The pint-sized backcourt is combining for 48 points a game for an offense that is averaging 88.7. Central Michigan is 11-7, and seldom are the losses boring. The Ball State stop ended up a 98-83 loss.
“We talk about this every day,” Keene said. “Nobody thinks two 5-foot-9 guards can lead a team to the NCAA tournament. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Davis knew he was getting a potential big scorer when Keene landed at Central Michigan, but he has been won over by the whole package.
“The best thing I can use to describe Marcus is a competitor. ... There’s something in people when you’re told you’re not big enough or fast enough or tall enough. You go one of two roads. You either listen to them, or you don’t. Those people that didn’t definitely tend to overachieve from what other people think they can do, and Marcus fits that category as well as anybody. If I tell him he can’t make this move or that move, he’s going to show me that I’m wrong.
“Normally when you see somebody putting up those numbers, you’d think you’ve got a finished product. I think he’s got room to grow, and that’s exciting.”
Keene wants badly to play somewhere beyond college.
“I think he’s been able to get some eyeballs on him this year,” Davis said.
And he wants badly to get Central Michigan, now 1-4 in the MAC, back into the league title hunt.
“If we’re not winning, [being the scoring leader] doesn’t really mean anything to me. Maybe I could have done something different. I’m going to feel like it was my fault. I just want to find a way to get some more wins.”
And along the way, maybe — if the points are plentiful enough — join a club more exclusive than Augusta National. There is one vacancy a year.