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Central Michigan’s basketball lineup should have a Macomb County flavor for the next several seasons.
Two of the Chippewas’ top recruits for next season are getting ready for their senior years at two of the top high school programs in the county.
Signing recently are guard Kevin McKay, De La Salle’s Mr. Everything, and 6-foot-11 center Innocent Nwoko, who teams with Jerry Ben, a Cornell recruit, to give New Haven a pair of twin towers that make it nearly impossible to drive the paint against the Rockets.
In announcing the signings, CMU coach Keno Davis said in a statement, “the thing that’s remained the same since we’ve gotten here is the value that we put in the character of the individual.
“Even now when we’ve been more successful on the court and recruit somebody who’s more highly thought of, we haven’t gone away from what has been successful for us. I think you’re going to see a young group come in next year that’s going to be very talented and with a really high ceiling.”
Nwoko and McKay will join another former Macomb County standout, Tedaro France III, a junior guard on the Chippewas who played for New Haven.
Both McKay and Nwoko are team captains for their high school squads. McKay has been a starter since his freshman season. Nwoko, a native of Nigeria, hadn’t played basketball until three years ago but has made tremendous strides since then. So has Ben.
“Innocent said he played a little before he came over here but most of his experience was playing soccer,” said Rockets coach Tedaro France II. “The first time I saw him he couldn’t even dunk the ball. He couldn’t catch the ball. He wanted to kick it. I had to tell him, ‘you don’t kick those balls. You have to shoot them.’
“The progress that both of those kids made has been great. They’re great kids, great students, great leaders.”
France had a lot of teaching to do when Nwoko and Ben arrived.
“On top of teaching skills and strength and speed, I had to teach them the rules,” he said. “They didn’t know what three seconds was. A lot of the kids here have been playing since they were 5 years old. I had to teach them how to post up, drop step, how to move without the ball, how to set a screen — things like that.”
There have still been times that the game moved too fast for Nwoko and Ben, but they played on Spiece Indy Heat, a top AAU team, to gain valuable experience and France expects them to have an outstanding season.
“For all that Innocent has gone through and to come here and be able to go to school for free is a blessing from God,” France said. “To hear the stories of what he went through (in Nigeria) and even over here and now to continue his academic and basketball career is a blessing.”
Nwoko and Ben both attend Austin Catholic, but because that school didn’t have a boys basketball team, they were able to play at New Haven under a co-op agreement.
France thinks the sky is the limit on Nwoko’s potential.
“He’s long. He has great feet. He can come out long on the wings. He’s so athletic,” France said. “He’s strong defensively right now and the offense is coming. He has made great strides there. When CMU came to see him they smiled and said, ‘this kid is going to be great. He’s still raw.’ Sometimes being raw is a good thing because you can mold them the way you want them to be and you don’t have to break bad habits. The things he can do now aren’t even close to what he can be. I don’t think he knows how good he can be.”
Nwoko realizes understands the strides he has made since his first practice at New Haven.
“Looking back I’ve really come a long way,” he said. “Things I couldn’t do, come easy for me now. Everything about basketball has improved. I’m very excited for my senior year. It all went so fast. It seems like it was just my sophomore year and now it’s my senior year.”
Nwoko is taking his leadership role seriously.
“We’re going to have a lot of new guys and as a senior, I have to step up and help them in any way that I can,” he said.
CMU’s coaching staff has had McKay on its radar since his sophomore season. It pays to be the first in line.
“That’s one of the reasons I decided on Central,” McKay said. “They were the first ones to show an interest. They’ve been coming to my games since I was a sophomore.”
Something else intrigued McKay about the Chippewas.
“They have a 6-11 big man (Nwoko) coming in,” McKay said. “I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
McKay’s role has changed since he started as a freshman at De La Salle.
“I played him in the post because the guard spots were filled and at the time they were better than he was,” said Pilots coach Greg Esler. “He had enough to show the coaching staff that he could play. In my 29 years as a coach he’s only the third freshman that stepped up and played.
“The great thing about Kevin is that every year he has gotten better. His work ethic is second to none. I think he’s one of the top five players in the state. He can get the ball to the basket as well as anybody I’ve coached. His outside shooting was suspect his freshman and sophomore years. It picked up last year and now it’s almost automatic. Kevin McKay was the No. 1 kid Central Michigan wanted. Kevin can score a bunch of points in a short amount of time. He’s so gifted physically. He’s a man-child in some of these games. His physical presence and talent takes over.”
McKay, started playing basketball in the sixth grade and he has been striving to improve all the time.
“My range is better,” he said. “When I came in I played a big man role, but now I’ve worked to improve my ball-handling skills. I’m always working to get better defensively. I’m also trying to take more of a vocal leadership role.”
McKay has been slowed by an ankle injury, but he’s close to 100 percent and sometime this year Esler expects him to become the leading scorer in De La Salle history.
“He’s a great young man. He’s fun to be around,” Esler said. “He has always been a leader by example, but I want him to be more of a vocal leader. I told him he has to let guys know when they’re not doing what they should, constructively, of course. Coach Esler can’t always be the bad guy. And when he sees guys getting down on themselves to give them a pat on the back.”
McKay and Nwoko will join the other two scholarship recruits, Ellis Jefferson, a guard from San Antonio, and Matt Smith, a guard from Elgin, Ill.