The Titans could be a ‘tough out’ in March

DETROIT — When an opposing head coach labels a team as a “big-time talent,” it’s a compliment. When that coach has led his team to two consecutive national title games, it’s downright flattering.

Following Detroit’s victory over Butler last Saturday, Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens had only praise for the suddenly hot Titans.

“The bottom line is, they’re a good basketball team,” Stevens said following the game.  

Stevens also called the Titans a “hard out” for the Horizon League and maybe even the NCAA or NIT tournament, should they keep up their stellar play.

But if the Titans — a trendy pick to win the Horizon League before the season started — are packed full of talent, then an obvious question remains: Why are they just 13-12 (7-6 Horizon) for the season?

“We started out on a tough stretch, but we’ve gotten better in practice and more consistent during games,” Titans head coach Ray McCallum said at practice on Wednesday.

The Titans are 6-2 in their last eight games, meaning that consistency appears to have finally arrived.

During their non-conference schedule, the Titans had as few as seven players available for some games. At one point during that opening stretch, they played five games in eight days.

The lack of personnel, coupled with the absence of key contributors like Eli Holman, played a major factor in a disappointing 2-4 start.

The end of non-conference play didn’t provide immediate respite either. The Titans started off Horizon play against Cleveland State, which still owns the league’s best record.

The Titans closed out December with a 7-9 record overall, including an uncharacteristic loss to Illinois-Chicago and a nail-mutilating victory over Loyola.

Bring on 2012.

Since Jan. 1, the Titans are 6-3, with two big wins over Butler, including Saturday’s win at Hinkle Fieldhouse — Detroit’s first victory in the storied building since 1997.

And if there’s a silver lining to be found in losing, two of those three losses came to Valparaiso (18-8) by a combined seven points.

“The way you play in January determines how you do in February,” said coach McCallum.

If they can hit their shots and prevent opposing marksmen from finding space on the floor, as McCallum says, “choke off the three,” the Titans should keep improving.

On the offensive end, the Titans need to stay within themselves. Turnovers have been a bit of a bugaboo for Detroit the last couple of years, but this year they have cut that number from 17.7 a game down to 12, while bumping up their assist average to 13 a game.

“I think the thing we’re understanding is the importance of rebounding and defense, and taking care of the ball,” McCallum said. “That was a big thing for us coming into the season.

“The turnovers are down and the assists are up, which has to do with much better ball movement and body control, not just standing there on offense. When we make shots, defense gets better.”

By making shots, the team has the opportunity to get set on defense and stay out of the transition game, which can be a defensive nightmare.

Power forward Lamarcus Lowe probably benefits the most in a defensive set. If the Titans can “choke off” the three-point shot, then the defense should be able to funnel opposing players into the key, which plays right into Lowe’s hands.

He averages 2.4 blocks per game, and Holman registers 1.7 per game. Together, with their combined athleticism and talent, those two create one of the most imposing low-post defensive tandems in the Horizon League, McCallum said.

Point guard Ray McCallum Jr., who leads the team with 15.7 points per game, has been the offensive catalyst to this point. He’s barely taken a day off since last season, attending prestigious summer camps as well as a Team USA showcase, and the hard work has clearly improved his decision-making on the court.

As his decision-making has improved, so has the rest of his game.

McCallum is now armed with a clean, quiet jump shot, strong moves off the dribble, keen court vision and a high basketball IQ. All that adds up to his near 16 points per game, 3.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals.

As long as McCallum and the rest of the Titans backcourt keep the turnovers down, then they should live up to Coach Stevens’ words and be a “tough out” come tournament time.