High school junior prospect Ray McCallum sat in Allen Fieldhouse with recruits such as Elijah Johnson and Xavier Henry and watched Kansas raise its 2008 NCAA championship banner.
“It was crazy,” McCallum said. “I’d never seen anything like it. I took visits to other schools, and it was by far the craziest atmosphere.”
But not enticing enough for McCallum, a McDonald’s All-American, to sign with the Jayhawks — or Florida, UCLA or Arizona.
The recruiting battle would come down the final days, he said. Ultimately, he chose home, signing with Detroit to play for his father, coach Ray McCallum.
The McCallums and 15th-seeded Detroit will try to take down No. 2-seed Kansas in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday night in Omaha, Neb.
McCallum is a major part of the Titans’ success. Detroit (22-13) received the Horizon Conference’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament championship game on the floor of top-seeded Valparaiso.
The Titans, seeded third, trailed by three at halftime but put on a show in the second half when McCallum, who averaged 15.6 points, scored 15 of his 21 points.
After the 70-50 victory, father and son walked off the court with their arms around each other’s shoulders.
“He was happy for me, but I was really happy for him,” McCallum said. “He’s always been a coach, which means he’s spent a lot of time away from the family. It was special to be able to share that with him.”
Indeed, McCallum was 2 when his dad became the coach at Ball State. After seven years that included two NCAA appearances, McCallum moved to Houston but couldn’t duplicate the success. He joined Kelvin Sampson’s staffs at Oklahoma and Indiana before landing at Detroit for the 2008-09 season.
Detroit went 7-23 the year before Coach McCallum arrived to replace Perry Watson, and that’s how McCallum’s first team finished.
But the Titans went 20-14 in McCallum’s second year, and when his son arrived for the 2010-11 season, Detroit had a winning league mark.
This was expected to be the Titans’ best team of the McCallum era, with a second-place projection. But after a 0-3 league start, things looked bleak.
“We had all these high expectations,” the younger McCallum said, “but after we got off to the slow start, dad told us the only way we’re going to make it to the tournament would be as the conference champ.”
After losing at Valparaiso on Feb. 2 and dropping to 12-12, the Titans’ season stood at a crossroads. Up next was a trip to Butler. This was the same Bulldogs team that had appeared in the previous two national championship games, and Butler owned a 13-game winning streak against Detroit in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Even the creators of “Hoosiers,” with the hoops scenes filmed in that building, were in the stands.
But Detroit spoiled the ending, winning 65-61 with McCallum going for 20 points and the Titans transitioning the Bulldogs into submission. Detroit forced 18 turnovers and outscored Butler 18-2 in transition.
“That’s the kind of team we are,” McCallum said.
Since then, Detroit has lost only once, and when the team saw they had drawn Kansas in its first game, McCallum loved it as a college basketball fan.
“I watch a lot of games and I’ve caught them five or six times,” McCallum said. “Thomas Robinson is a national player of the year, Tyshawn Taylor has done a great job. Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, Jeff Withey, all of them. It’s a great team.”
But one McCallum believes the Titans can match. The Titans have four seniors in the playing rotation, including 6-10 frontliners LaMarcus Lowe and Eli Holman.
“We’re a tough team,” McCallum said. “We don’t let down. We proved that we’ll compete with anyone.”