Throughout the years, very few opposing coaches who faced Kansas University in the NCAA Tournament have gotten the kind of look at KU’s program that University of Detroit Mercy coach Ray McCallum received a little more than two years ago.
McCallum, now in his fourth season at Detroit, which will face KU at 8:57 p.m. Friday in a second-round NCAA Tournament game in Omaha, Neb., found himself locked in a unique recruiting battle for one of the top guards in the country. On one side were perennial powers such as Kansas, Florida and UCLA. On the other was McCallum and his rebuilding Horizon League program. The object of their affection was a young man named Ray McCallum Jr., the Detroit head coach’s son, and because of that, McCallum operated as part-father and part-recruiter throughout his son’s final year of high school.
Some nights that meant in-home visits and quaint conversations with big-time head coaches like Bill Self, Billy Donovan and Ben Howland. Other nights, that meant trying to knock the stars out of his son’s eyes while selling the hometown Titans.
“He had a visit out there that he’ll never forget,” said McCallum by telephone, recalling his son’s recruiting trip to KU. “He actually mentioned that the other day. He went out for (Late Night), and they got their (2008) national championship rings that night, and I know that made a big-time impression on him.”
As the recruitment unfolded and the other schools began to fill their rosters, the 6-foot-2 McDonald’s All-American began to warm to the idea of playing for his father.
“He wanted to look at the very best programs, and I know he was flattered that KU looked at him,” McCallum said. “I think it was important that he go through the process and visit with the very best schools that were interested in him. Once Kansas made their decision that they were set on their guards, I think the decision was easy. I really got to know the (Kansas) coaches through that recruiting process, and they do things right. First-class all the way. And it was good to be able to go through that with him.”
It was even better to land him, because, in the two years since, McCallum Jr., has led the team in points, assists and steals and gone on to become a two-time all-Horizon League selection. He was named Newcomer of the Year following the 2010-11 season and a first-team selection this season, which he and his teammates capped by winning the Horizon League tournament last week.
“He wanted to go to a place that he could play and make an impact and do what he’s accomplished here, and that’s led us to a conference championship and lead us to the NCAA Tournament,” McCallum said. “After our championship game, he said, ‘Hey, we did it. This is what we came here to do, and we did it.’”
With phase one of the dream scenario now behind them, the father-son duo will shift its focus to the task of taking on the second-seeded Jayhawks (27-6). Although the process of putting together a game plan for Kansas had just begun, McCallum said he knew plenty about the Jayhawks long before learning his 15th-seeded Titans (22-13) would face them Friday.
“That’s the thing — every chance we get, we want to watch a Kansas play,” he said. “They’ve got good players, they’re well coached, and they’re fun to watch. They have the player of the year and another who may be a top-three team All-American. We have to contend with that, and we’re gonna have our hands full because they don’t need a play to make a play.”
Regardless of whether McCallum can find a way to get his team to slow down KU forward Thomas Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor, two things are certain. The first? McCallum believes his team will show up.
“You look at our numbers, you look at the way we finished the (Horizon League) tournament and how competitive we’ve been against high-major teams … I expect for us to lace ’em up tight and go out and compete,” he said.
The second? Win or lose Friday, McCallum said the 2011-12 season would go down as one he won’t forget.
“It’s the best time of my coaching career,” he said. “It’s special every day. I get to see my son every day, I get to help him with his game and evaluate his game as a coach and also be dad. For me, there’s nothing better than that.”