Team preview: Central Michigan

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

First-year Central Michigan coach Ernie Zeigler has made it clear the number 40 will fast become his yardstick for success in Mount Pleasant.

The former UCLA assistant was hired June 29, taking over for Jay Smith who resigned May 11 after nine roller-coaster seasons. A two-time MAC Coach of the Year, Smith stepped down after a 4-24 mark last winter and a 20-66 record over three seasons. The high watermark was a MAC Tournament championship and a first-round NCAA Tournament win over Creighton in 2003. Since then, it had been a steady decline as NBA lottery pick Chris Kaman left a year early, several other players defected, and a slip in recruiting hastened Smith's decision with one year left on his contract.

Zeigler brings a fresh start. His roots are in Michigan and especially Detroit, where he coached high school and AAU basketball in the 1990s. That should pay dividends in Central's ability to recruit a state annually loaded with talent. Having worked under Ben Howland for five seasons, two at Pittsburgh and three at UCLA, he will emphasize defense.

"We need to develop a defensive mindset," Zeigler said. "Most successful NCAA Tournament teams hold their opponents to under 40 percent [shooting] from the floor and out-rebound them. Those will be our areas of immediate concern."

Asked what the No. 1 thing he learned from Howland was, Zeigler didn't hesitate: "An ability to develop a level of toughness and a desire to win and compete." UCLA advanced to the championship game of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

The good news and the bad news is that Central returns five starters from last season.

"None of the players on our roster have had a whole lot of success at this level," Zeigler said. "They need to develop confidence. We have to bring this group's mindset from playing not to lose to playing to win. They need to gain some toughness and learn to close and finish games. It's a rebuilding process."

Central Michigan struggled in several areas last season, but a quick glance at the statistics shows the Chips were minus 9.3 in scoring margin, struggled to shoot the ball from the field (40.9 percent) and had nearly twice as many turnovers as assists. But Zeigler was consistent in saying that his team's style of play will be predicated on "how well we're able to defend. We have to make it difficult for people to get into their offense."