Remembering an Improbable Journey
Courtesy: Robert Barclay/CMU
Tim Kisner cuts down the net following Central Michigan's 2001 MAC championship.

By Don Helinski (This piece originally appeared in Centralight, Summer 2001)

The 2001 MAC championship team will be recognized during a 10th anniversary celebration Saturday, Feb. 26.

An emotional Tim Kisner climbed the stepladder in the Rose Center and made the final cut. With the net now in his left hand and a tear in his eye, he waved the nylon meshing over his head and pumped his first to the applause of the crowd beneath him.

For Kisner and his fellow seniors - Jon Borovich, Luke Johnson and Todd Schrotenboer - CMU's Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship was the end of an improbable journey.

But head coach Jay Smith and the rest of the Chippewas looked at it as just the beginning.

The CMU men's basketball team took the MAC crown in surprising fashion in 2001, becoming the only team in conference history to go from worst to first in a single season. It marked the fifth championship banner in CMU basketball history and the first since 1987 - Dan Majerle's junior season.

The Chippewas finished 20-8 overall and 14-4 in MAC play, a game ahead of Kent State in the overall conference standings. After going 6-23 the previous season with a 2-16 conference mark, Central's turnaround tied for the ninth best in NCAA Division I history.

"This season was a great accomplishment for everybody involved and the university as a whole," MAC Coach of the Year Jay Smith said. "Our players knew what we had and what we could do. We weren't shocked with what we were able to accomplish. The team believed and that is why we worked so hard in the summer and during the season."

The championship was the culmination of four years of rebuilding by Smith and his staff and a strong foundation that was set with the current senior class. Central ended a string of 12 straight losing seasons by posting only the sixth 20-win season in school history.

The "blue collar" senior class was 21-60 in the previous three seasons but they set a tone with their work ethic and leadership ability off the court. Their game experience also proved to be the difference in the close games as CMU won five games by five points or less during the championship run.

"This was a special class from the day it arrived in Mount Pleasant," Smith said. "The seniors were the ones who laid a solid foundation for us. Our players who are coming up now respect that and will build upon it."

The Chippewas have a lot to build on when you consider that the team only loses one starter and returns a host of award winners led by 6-2 guard David Webber, the MAC Player of the Year and an honorable mention All-America pick by the Associated Press.

Webber led the MAC in scoring with 18.4 points per game and his 5.2 rebounds tied for the team best. He had two double-doubles on the year and by the end of the season was drawing a nightly double-team effort by the opponents.

The Player of the Year billing marked the third time a Chippewa has been selected for the MAC's top award following Dan Roundfield in 1975 and Melvin "Sugar" McLaughlin in 1982. Webber also was one of the 15 finalists for the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Year trophy presented by the US Basketball Writers Association.

Sophomore Chad Pleiness, CMU's two-sport standout (also a starting pitcher in baseball), was an honorable mention all-conference pick after averaging 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. His .844 free throw percentage was tops in the MAC and ranked second best in CMU history. Pleiness' biggest shot of the season was when he hit the game-winning buzzer-beater to down Toledo, 70-68, and extend the Chippewas' winning streak to 11 games. The 11-game string was the second-longest winning streak in school history and, at the time, ranked as the fourth longest active winning streak in the country.

Starters Mike Manciel and Kisner were an integral part of CMU's balanced scoring attack with Manciel averaging 9.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game and Kisner posting 8.2 points and ranking fourth in the MAC in assists with 4.6 per game. Kisner ended his career as the only Chippewa to ever record 1,000 career points and 400 career assists.

Seniors Borovich, Johnson and Schrotenboer all found themselves in the game at key moments, such as the end of the game against Purdue when Schrotenboer's last-second layup gave visiting CMU a 67-66 win in Mackey Arena. The three combined to average 7.9 points and 6.1 rebounds in a reserve role while also starting a combined 10 games.

Also key to Central's success was the post presence of freshmen Gerrit Brigitha and Chris Kaman. Both were named to the MAC All-Freshman Team marking the third straight season CMU had a frosh named to the list. Brigitha started all 28 games and averaged 5.8 points and 2.7 rebounds per contest. The seven-foot Kaman ended up averaging 9.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while ranking fourth in the MAC in blocked shots with 1.6 per game.