Courtesy: Tim Fitzgerald/CMU Athletics
The 2002-03 Central Michigan Chippewas celebrate winning the Mid-American Conference tournament on March 15, 2003. The Chippewas earned a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they knocked off No. 6 seeded Creighton.
The 2002-03 MAC Champions Celebrate Ten Years

In its 99th season, Central Michigan ended its first century of basketball with its best. The Chippewas set a new high in wins, 25, a record that dated back to 1967. Central Michigan closed out the 2002-03 season with a Mid-American Conference Tournament title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the first time in 16 years. On the ten-year reunion of the Chippewas’ MAC Championship, we welcome back the 2002-03 team to McGuirk Arena.

Determined. That is how current assistant coach Jeff Smith described the team.

“They were just gym rats,” said Smith. “They were always in the gym. They were hard working, good athletes, and good people that were always working at their game.”

Coming off of a 9-19 season in 2001, the Chippewas rebounded with four starters returning. 

“When we didn’t win the way we thought we were going to it put a sting in us,” Smith said. “We came out that spring and really put our hard hats on and went to work through the spring and summer and the results showed.”

The results showed immediately for Central Michigan, winning seven non-conference games for only the second time in program history. The Chippewas picked up marquee victories at Michigan, 85-78, and at Bradley, 74-71. After dropping the MAC opener against Miami (Ohio), Central Michigan won 11 of the next 13 on its way to a 14-win season in the conference, a feat that has been done only three times in program history. The Chippewas finished the 2002-03 season 12-1 at home, the most wins in a single season in Mount Pleasant.

“We just had great team chemistry,” said Whitney Robinson, senior guard on the 2002-03 team. “Once we started getting some victories and saw we were on top of the MAC standings, we had a big confidence boost.” 

Central Michigan opened up the 2002-03 MAC Tournament against Bowling Green with an 87-70 win. The Chippewas continued their conference run in round two, defeating Northern Illinois for the third time, 94-72. In the finals, Central Michigan looked for pay back against Ken State after the Golden Flashes proved to be too much at home earlier in the season, knocking off the 12-4 Chippewas, 78-82. Central Michigan got its retaliation though, winning the MAC championship, 77-67.

“We were on cloud nine,” said T.J. Meerman, junior guard on the 2002-03 team. “I remember being back at the hotel and no one could go to sleep. We all were up watching the highlights on ESPN and anticipating our first round matchup in the NCAA Tournament. 

With a 24-6 record, Central Michigan entered the NCAA Tournament for only the fourth time in its Division I era. The Chippewas received a No. 11 seed, its highest ranking ever in the tournament, and were matched up against No. 6 seeded Creighton. The Chippewas shocked the nation with a 79-73 victory. Central Michigan finished the game with four players scoring in double digits, including a game high 29 points by senior Mike Manciel.

“We went into that game full of confidence,” Robinson said. “Everyone believed we would win that game. We thought that we were the best mid-major school in the country, and we were on that night.”

After defeating the Bluejays, the Chippewas advanced to play the No. 3 seed, Duke. Central Michigan’s magical season came to a close, falling 86-60 to the Blue Devils.

“It was a quick turnaround after the Creighton game,” said Meerman. “Duke’s depth really hurt us but it was still a great experience to play against one of the top teams in the country.”

The 2002-03 season made its mark on the Central Michigan record books. Six individuals currently rank in the program’s top 10 in 15 different categories, including points in a single season (Chris Kaman, 694), career field goal percentage (Gerrit Brigitha, .538), and season free throw percentage (J.R. Wallace, .869), a mark senior guard Kyle Randall is on pace for.

“The nice part is that [members of the 2002-03 team] still come around,” Smith said. “The players from that team were back in August and had the chance to meet our current players, and it was a great opportunity to bridge the past with the present.”

The team has maintained close ties since their college playing days, said Smith. The team continues to communicate with one another and with the program and have gatherings such as tailgate Saturdays and an annual alumni game in the summer.

“You look at what those guys did, and you have Kaman who was a lottery pick in the NBA draft. What it means for the program is that you have a group of guys that live and die Central Michigan, and they still bleed maroon and gold,” Smith said. 

The 2002-03 Chippewas will be recognized during halftime of Saturday's game against Toledo. Tip off is at 7 p.m. inside McGuirk Arena.