Titans’ Holman takes rocky road to tourney

At 6 feet, 10 inches and 270 pounds, Detroit Titans senior center Eli Holman cuts an imposing figure.

Imposing to the guys he goes up against on the basketball court — and most certainly to any living creature he decides to take for a spin around the back 40.
 
Holman loves riding horses. It’s his favorite thing to do. It relaxes him like nothing else can.
 
“I told my teammates and they looked at me like I was crazy, but I love horseback riding,” said Holman, a Richmond, Calif., native. “In California, you ride horses and surf and things like that. You know, I’m not a surfer. I’ve never tried it, but horseback riding is one my biggest things.

“On Giants Highway (Highway 101), by my old house, there’s a ranch there, and I have a horse, Debi. Debi is my girl. I haven’t been home in a while, but I know Debi is waiting for me.”
 
Poor horse. She must be ruing the day when he walks back through the door.
 
If anyone can empathize with the horse, though, it’s Holman, who’s carried plenty of weight on his shoulders during his collegiate career.
 
“I understand the expectations put on me,” he said. “I like the expectations. It means that people want to see you succeed. If I work hard, I can live up to my potential.
 
“And I don’t think anyone knows what that is, not even me. But I won’t put a limit on that.”
 
Neither will assistant coach Jay Smith, whose everyday back-and-forth with Holman could populate a sketch-comedy show.
 
“When Eli is focused, he has as good a work ethic as I have seen in my 25 years of coaching,” Smith said. “I think there is a tremendous upside to him.”
 
That upside materialized this season, when Holman helped the Titans earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1999. They’re a 15th seed in the Midwest Region and open the tournament against No. 2 Kansas in Omaha, Neb., Friday night.
 
Holman was named the Horizon League’s Sixth Man of the Year. Last week, he received an official invite to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a prestigious NBA scouting event.
 
“All this has been amazing, truly amazing,” Holman said with his supernova smile.
 
Even with his class-clown swagger and his mostly sunny disposition, Holman’s route to Detroit has been slightly windier and much cloudier than the legendary waterfront highways he grew up near.
 
He played his high school basketball at Richmond High School in Northern California — the same Richmond High School of “Coach Carter” fame.
 
As a senior, he averaged a triple-double, earning him a four-star rating by Scout.com.
 
But on Jan. 20, 2007, as a senior in high school, Holman was shot twice in the back during an altercation.
 
He fully recovered from the shooting, but not from the implications. After that day, there was no such thing as an innocuous misstep from the highly touted big man.
 
He attended Indiana University his freshman year, but by February 2008, Kelvin Sampson had been forced out amid allegations of recruiting violations.
 
Holman and new head coach Tom Crean never hit off, and Holman transferred that spring to Detroit after a semi-public blowout in Crean’s office.

Even though the circumstances surrounding his transfer were tumultuous, Holman has only good things to say about his time at Indiana. He calls former Hoosier D.J. White “one his biggest mentors” and says that he talks to the 2008 first-round draft pick on a regular basis.
 
Things were going well for Holman in Detroit. After sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules, he led the Horizon League in rebounding in 2008-09. The following year, he led the conference in double-doubles and rebounding, which earned him second-team all-conference honors.
 
The table seemed set for Holman to help the Titans dominate the Horizon this season and break through the glass ceiling of postseason play that had been hanging over their heads for 13 years.

But in true Six Flags fashion, he was involved in a fight at a fraternity house near campus that earned him a 10-game suspension, leaving his team minus one of its key pieces.
 
Without Holman, the Titans got off to a disappointing 4-6 start — they went 18-7 after his return — and he became one of the campus’ most polarizing figures.
 
“I’m not a bad guy, not at all, and rules are rules” Holman said. “I have definitely been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I do everything to minimize that now.  

“I’ve never been a drinker or anything like that, but now I don’t even go to the parties.
 
“You know that saying, ‘Live for today’? I don’t. Not anymore. I live for tomorrow.”
 
Holman is adamant that his past indiscretions don’t define who he is — not the real Eli Holman, he says, the one who’s alone in the weight room on his team’s day off.
 
So who’s the real Eli Holman then?
 
Well, he’s at least half-machine — has to be. His workout regimen is intense enough to tire bionic limbs.
 
According to the all-important eye test, he’s a unique combination of size and fundamentals with a robotic-like, refined work ethic. If you could capture his energy, his motor would power the Titans’ home arena, Calihan Hall.

Outside of the arena, he enjoys watching a cat-and-mouse cartoon.

“I really love to watch basketball,” Holman said, “I’d watch basketball all day. Unless ‘Tom and Jerry’ is on, then I watch the mouse win.”
 
Holman goes bowling a lot, is an avid fan of the Wayne State women’s basketball team and likes “The Lion King,” the movie version.
 
He wants to teach and is enrolled in a master’s program in education. Holman completed his bachelor’s degree in December.
 
Back at the gym earlier this week, Holman returned for his second session in the weight room before noon. His first workout started at 6 a.m.  
 
“When we’re on the road, I try to accommodate his work ethic,” Titans strength and conditioning coach Joe Tofferi said. “We’ve worked out anywhere and everywhere.
 
“For him, there’s a lot of psychology behind it. He likes to know that he’s worked harder than whatever other big he’s going up against.”
 
When the Titans take the floor against Kansas, Holman will come off the bench early and will likely be matched up against national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson.

Nothing but a horseback ride around the back 40 for Holman.
 
“Bring it on, man,” he said. “I’ve worked for this.”