Will Marcus Keene Be College Basketball's 1st 30 PPG Scorer in 20 Years?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 9, 2016

Marcus Keene is the best (and shortest) total package in college basketball.
Marcus Keene is the best (and shortest) total package in college basketball.Courtesy of Central Michigan Athletics

The last time a men's college basketball player averaged at least 30 points per game for an entire season, the only dribbling in Marcus Keene's life was the drool down his two-year-old chin.

But after the awe subsided from Keene's recent 40 burger against Green Bayhis fifth consecutive game with at least 31 points and his eighth time reaching 30 in just 10 gamesthe college hoops nation is left wondering whether Central Michigan's 5'9" lead guard can do that which hasn't been done in two decades.

It's painfully easy to dismiss Keene's scoring as an early anomaly. Even CMU head coach Keno Davis thinks it's unlikely he keeps it up, telling Bleacher Report this week: "He is going to see more and more attention. We don't expect his numbers to be able to sustain where they're at, but we do expect him to still have the same impact on the game as we go throughout the year."

Agree to disagree, because Keene is the most impactful player in the nation, and it's not close.

He's averaging 31.4 points, and he isn't even shooting as much as he could, as he's also doling out 5.1 assists per game. He plays a ton of minutes (38.2 over his last five) and never gets into foul trouble (1.1 per game). He's an efficient scorer in a high-scoring offense, but his shooting percentages43.8 percent from three, 52.5 percent from the field, 83.8 percent from the linearen't outlandish to the point of inevitable regression to the mean.

Keene has the freedom from his coach to keep this going, and he's the best chance Central Michigan has to keep winning games.

Watch the Chippewas play and look at the stats, and the only rational conclusion to come to is that Keene will finish the year with a higher scoring average than any player has had in his lifetime.


The System

Catch a few SportsCenter highlights and it looks like Keene is an egregious ball hog. He shoots contested, pull-up threes with 25 seconds left on the shot clock. He takes shots from deeper than Jimmer Fredette ever did.

Sometimes he even makes spin moves before shots for no apparent reason:

But that's just Central Michigan basketball.

(Maybe not the unnecessary spin move, but definitely the shooting threes until your arms fall off.)

Since Coach Davis was hired in 2012, the Chippewas have ranked in the top eight nationally in percentage of shots taken from three-point range in each season. They attempted 38 three-pointers in Tuesday's 107-97 win over Green Bay and actually decreased their reliance on that shot against D-I opponents to a still-staggering 52.1 percent.

"We played them when I was at Youngstown State the year before I transferred," Keene said. "They had the green light to shoot threes when they wanted. So I knew that coming into here. I was a three-point shooter, and [Davis] was going to allow me to shoot my pull-up and catch-and-shoot threes if I was open."

Three Chippewas attempted at least 200 three-pointers last season, and the team is well on its way to that mark again, as Keene (8.9), Josh Kozinski (8.6) and Braylon Rayson (7.6) combine to average more than 25 long-distance attempts per game.

As long as he doesn't start pulling up from 47 feet, Keene isn't living his life in fear of the bench if he misses a few shots. Everyone on the roster seems to have the permanent green light, and Keene is benefiting from that as the primary ball-handler and best shooter.

"Marcus has proven that, while he's not always successful, his move or his shot is at a pretty high percentage," Davis said. "So, to be able to get the ball in his hands and let him create, at times that's better than any offense we could use to put them in [scoring] situations."


The Transformation

Finishing at the rim was not part of Marcus Keene's game at Youngstown State.
Finishing at the rim was not part of Marcus Keene's game at Youngstown State.Courtesy of Central Michigan Athletics

Keene was a good shooter at Youngstown State. He averaged 15.6 points per game in 2014-15 while shooting 41.9 percent from the perimeter. But he was playing off the ball in an offense that didn't rely heavily on the three.

During his year sitting out due to transfer rules, he got stronger and changed his mindset from that of a shooter to that of a scorer. He had to physically and mentally become more like the NBA player he says he tries to emulate: Isaiah Thomas.

"Some kids like working out; some kids don't," said Keene's strength and conditioning coach, Taylor Larson. "But he's always bought in. He has always worked hard for me, and it's easier when you have a motivated individual. ... I don't really know what he did in Youngstown, but we were able to put about 15 pounds on him here. And it's good weight. He's moving around really well. He's explosive. We got his vertical up from a 36 to a 42."

As great (43.8 percent) and as frequent of a three-point shooter as he still is, there's no denying the impact that year in the weight room has had on his game.

In his last season with YSU, Keene scored 54.7 percent of his points from the three-point line. This year, only 37.3 percent of his points come from downtowneven though he entered play Wednesday tied for second in the nation in made three-pointers.

Through 10 games, he has already scored nearly as many points off two-point shots and free throws (197) as he did in 32 games two years ago (226).

"Yes, he can knock down the outside shot," Davis said. "He can do it off the catch. He can do it off the dribble. But if you press up on him, he can also take you to the basket, draw fouls and be able to finish at the rim. He's got the full package."

One other thing worth noting that hasn't come into play yet is that his new role as primary ball-handler means he'll be the one getting the insurance free throws when trying to maintain a lead at the end of close games. But the 8-2 Chippewas have yet to play a game this season decided by single digits, so those freebies haven't been a factor in his 31.4 PPG.


The Teammates

So, just double-team him, right? Pick him up the second he crosses half court and throw a box-and-one at him. Hell, make it a triangle-and-two with both of the man-to-man defenders on Keene!

The problem with that theory is there are other guys on this roster who can score, and he isn't afraid to use them.

"He's averaging over 30 points, but it is about as unselfish of a 30 points you could ever get," Davis said. "I don't think there are many occasions where you would look and he's taking a contested shot when somebody one pass away had an easier shot."

Without question, this has been the biggest revelation while watching Keene play. You see in the national stats that some guy from a mid-major school is averaging 30 points per game, and you tune in expecting to see him doing his best Kobe Bryant impression, waving off teammates and throwing up wild shots.

Instead, if anything, it feels like Keene isn't being selfish enough.

Remember that silly spin move before the shot? He had an even more ridiculous one late in the first half of that game when he lost his dribble, tracked it down, immediately spun to avoid two defenders and somehow had the wherewithal to find a wide-open teammate underneath the rim. This came one possession after he drove to the rim before wrapping the ball around two defenders to set up a teammate for a dunk.

Keene took 23 shots against Green Bay and didn't even lead the team in field-goal attempts. Rather, he finished the night with 11 assists, helping Rayson match his career high of 30 points. There were at least a dozen possessions where he was nothing more than a decoy, chilling on the perimeter away from the ball to help open up the rest of the floor.

Perhaps even more important than the buy-in Keene has from his coach, his teammates are 100 percent on board too.

Both he and his coach laughed off any notion that teammates might be getting a little jealous about his workload. Considering there are four other Chippewas averaging at least 8.0 points per game, with one (Rayson) sitting at 17.6, it's clear there are plenty of buckets to go around in this high-scoring offense.

"As a team, we want to come together to win," Kozinski said. "Obviously, getting Marcus shots is key. He's shooting at a high clip right now. He needs those shots, and we need those shots. Whatever it takes to win. And, Marcus, I know he's a winner. That's one thing we loved about him when he came here."

"If you look at our numbers, everyone's still getting their shots," Keene said. "I'm shooting 19 or 20, but it just so happens I'm also making 10 of those. You can't really get too mad, based on where my percentages are right now. Plus, we're winning, so nobody really has a problem."


The 'Defense'

All eyes on Marcus Keene is a good way to get torched by other Chippewas.
All eyes on Marcus Keene is a good way to get torched by other Chippewas.Courtesy of Central Michigan Athletics

"At all times, we've got four shooters out there on the floor," Keene said. "It can kind of hurt us as well on the defensive end."

There's an understatement.

CMU is scoring in bunches, but it has also allowed 82.3 points per game against D-I opponents85.6 if you also take out the 82-59 game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which has the least efficient offense in the country. And these aren't world-beating offenses we're talking about. St. Bonaventure, Arkansas-Little Rock and Green Bay each scored more points against Central Michigan than they have against any other D-I opponent this season.

In Tuesday's game against the Phoenix, there was one stretch in the second half where Enes Kanter's younger brother, Kerem, scored 20 consecutive points for Green Bay. The junior entered the game with a career high of 17, but he scored 20 in a span of just over five minutes by getting fed in the post over and over again.

With a pair of 5'9" lead guards, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Central Michigan is one of the smallest teams in the country. KenPom.com ranks its average height at 348th out of 351 teams. As a result, it is getting abused in the paint night after night. The Chippewas are fast on offense, but their average possession length on defense is even shorter, as teams are quickly able to score against them.

Because their best defense is more offense, they ought to lead the nation in scoring this seasonwhich should be the final piece in Keene's 30 PPG puzzle.

When a player last averaged 30 points per game, Charles Jones benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Jones transferred out of Rutgers after two seasons and landed at Long Island for some of the most back-and-forth basketball ever played.

The 1996-97 Blackbirds led the nation in scoring at 91.5 points per game, 6.5 more than the next closest team. Though we're unable to calculate possessions without reliable national offensive rebounding or turnover data from that season, it's a safe assumption that LIU led the nation in tempo too, as they gave up 83.6 points per game and attempted more shots per game than any other school.

The leader of that uptempo attack told InsideHoops.com in 2003: "At LIU, it was meant for me to score. Coach wanted me to score, because we didn't have any inside presence, so I basically was that."

Though he isn't taking nearly as many shots per game as Jones did during his magical season (25.0 vs. 19.8), that's precisely where Keene is at with Central Michigan.

His impressive shooting percentages may eventually regress to an extent, but those are sustainable numbers in an offense where open looks are the name of the game.

As a junior forward, John Simons shot 45.5, 69.8 and 84.3 percent, respectively, for this same Central Michigan program in 2014-15. Granted, it wasn't at anywhere near the same volume Keene is shooting, but there's no good reason to assume Keene's numbers will inevitably go in the tank. As long as he doesn't get hurt, he's going to keep shooting and scoring a ton for one of the highest-scoring, most uptempo offenses in the country.

Maybe he doesn't make it through the whole season over 30 points per game, but he's the best shot we've had in a while.

As long as Central Michigan keeps winning games, though, Keene wouldn't mind missing the milestone.

"If I get 29 in a win, I'm still OK."


All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Stats are courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports-Reference.com.

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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