NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Titans received a gift basket recently, along with a card offering congratulations from a famous fan.
“You Are Awesome Baby!” it said.
Yes, Dick Vitale’s former team is heading back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. The Titans beat Valparaiso on Tuesday night to earn an automatic bid out of the Horizon League — the same conference that was represented by Butler in the last two national title games.
“I think Butler the last two years has set the tone not only for the Horizon conference, but for mid-majors across the country,” Detroit senior Eli Holman said. “I think for a team such as ourselves, to be a mid-major with high-caliber players, it’s going to be very interesting to see how we surprise some teams.”
Detroit (22-13) already pulled off a couple impressive upsets in its league tournament. The Titans finished tied for third during the regular season but beat second-seeded Cleveland State in the semifinals. They crushed top-seeded Valparaiso 70-50 on the Crusaders’ home court in the championship game.
Known officially as the University of Detroit Mercy, the 5,600-student school boasts a long basketball tradition. Dave DeBusschere and Spencer Haywood were two of the program’s stars during the 1960s, and Vitale coached the team from 1973-77, going 78-30.
The Titans play at Calihan Hall, a cozy 8,295-seat arena that began hosting basketball in 1952. Detroit named its court after Vitale in December before a win over St. John’s.
That game was part of a difficult nonconference schedule that coach Ray McCallum says helped prepare his team for this impressive stretch run. Detroit also played on the road against Notre Dame and Alabama and hosted Mississippi State, losing each of those games.
When it came time to play for an NCAA bid — away from home — the Titans were ready.
“We want to win every time we step on the court,” McCallum said. “We showed that we can win away from Calihan, and be competitive against some of the top teams in the country.”
McCallum estimates Detroit will be seeded in the 13-15 range, well below where Butler was during its national runner-up finishes the last couple years. But the Titans are certainly eager to take their shot at an upset.
“I would like a high seed, but I think with this kind of caliber team that we have — the talent and the character of the players we have — I think wherever we’re seeded, I think we’re going to make a statement by our play and our toughness,” Holman said.
The last time the program reached the NCAA tournament, Detroit beat fifth-seeded UCLA in the first round 13 years ago.
“We’re a hot team, the way we finished,” McCallum said. “Our overall record and numbers and strength of schedule and RPI and all of those things, I don’t think they show how good we can be.”
McCallum’s son — who is also named Ray McCallum — is a sophomore guard for the Titans and the team’s leading scorer. Five Detroit players have averaged double figures on the season, and the Titans forced 18 turnovers in their win over Valparaiso.
That resounding victory gave the Titans a chance to play on the big stage — an opportunity they’d like to make the most of.
“I just want people around the country to know who we are. I hate going to the airport as a team and we’ve got on our U of D warmups … and people have no idea who we are,” the younger McCallum said. “I just want people around the country to really know who the University of Detroit is, and earn the respect that we deserve.”
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