DETROIT — Expectations weren’t very high for the University of Detroit Mercy men’s basketball team this winter.

The Titans finished 10th in the 10-team Horizon League during 2017-18, and in the conference’s preseason poll, the Titans were predicted to remain there this winter.  

There were some very convincing reasons: For one, Detroit Mercy was undergoing a coaching change. Only three letter-winners were returning to the roster. (Nationwide, only three other NCAA Division 1 colleges were bringing back fewer.) The 13 newcomers (14, if you count another who sat out last year as a redshirt) gave the Titans the highest number among any team in the country.

And after the team won only three of its first 12 games, it was beginning to look like the prognosticators were accurate.

So, one month into conference play, guess who is sitting in first place?

The very same Titans, who hiked their Horizon League record to 5-1 with a 93-84 victory over the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Jan. 12. Their other four conference wins — against Youngstown State, Cleveland State, Wright State and Wisconsin-Green Bay — have been by double digits. That’s Detroit Mercy’s best start in league play since going 8-1 in 1988-89.

What’s the reason for the Titans’ turnaround?

“We’re starting to look better as a team,” said freshman guard Antoine Davis. “We’re playing a lot of team basketball, and right now we’re looking really good.”

New coach Mike Davis has taken the University of Detroit Mercy men's basketball team to the top of the Horizon League standings. The Titans are 5-1 after being picked to finish in last place.

“The energy is there,” added first-year coach Mike Davis, who joined the team after guiding Texas Southern University for six seasons. Prior to that, he spent six years apiece at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Indiana University (where he succeeded the legendary Bobby Knight).

While recruiting has long been one of coach Davis’ strengths, he didn’t have to look far in order to bring in a couple of key cogs — his oldest son, Mike Jr., is an assistant coach, and his youngest, Antoine, is Detroit Mercy’s spotlight player.

Just 18 games into the season, Antoine Davis has already broken the team’s freshman records for most points in a game (48), three-pointers in a season (90 and counting) and points in a season (498 so far).

The Horizon League’s leading scorer through six games (27.4 points per game, which also ranks second in the nation), Davis already has been named the Horizon League Freshman of the Week six times and the Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Week on Jan. 8, after he averaged 40.5 points against Wright State and Northern Kentucky (the team’s only league loss to date).

Against Milwaukee, Antoine Davis had a game-high 32 points and connected on five three-pointers — many of which came in clutch situations when the Panthers were chipping away at the lead down the stretch.  

“It helps my team lock in a little more and know that we’re still good no matter what, and it gets me going more,” he said. “We came back after halftime and made some adjustments for the most part, and played some really good D (defense) in the second half.”

University of Detroit Mercy guard Antoine Davis signs a T-shirt for a young fan following the Titans' 93-84 victory over Milwaukee on Jan. 12.

The clutch shooting was not lost on coach Davis, either.

“It gives them the mindset of being comfortable in those situations,” Mike Davis said. “I hate the word ‘confident’; I like ‘comfortable’ more than anything because they’ve been preparing themselves every day at practice, taking 400 to 500 shots individually. We feel once you’ve prepared, you will feel comfortable once the ball gets in your hands.”

With a big rivalry game against Oakland University looming next (on Jan. 19), Detroit Mercy has been fairly successful following coach Davis’ objective to “win all the home games,” taking four of five so far on the Dick Vitale Court.

“We have one more game at home in the first half of conference play with two road games left, and unfortunately lost a home game (to Northern Kentucky) you don’t want to lose, but we also want to get better throughout conference play,” the coach said. “We played a tough non-conference schedule to get us ready for conference play, and when March rolls around, you want to be playing the best basketball, being the best team you can be, at that point.”

It will be important if the Titans can continue to win at home, with five consecutive road contests looming in the second half of the league season, Feb. 7-23.

How can coach Davis get his players to keep up the energy through the rest of the year?

“If you can always practice like you lost the last game, you’re going to be a good basketball team,” he said. “If you can do that, the focus will be there.”