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There’s No Way to Explain Marcus Keene

College basketball’s leading scorer is a 5-foot-9 point guard who’s part mid-major phenom, part J.R. Smith, and part magician

(Getty Images/Ringer illustrations)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustrations)

The first thing I noticed was his height. That’s a common observation among those who have watched Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene, but his stature was even more jarring than I imagined it would be. Even in the Mid-American Conference, where players are generally an inch or two shorter than they’d ideally be for their positions, Keene’s 5-foot-9 frame demanded my attention. I drove to Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday night to see the leading scorer in Division I (averaging 30.7 points per game), and I knew beforehand that he was undersized. But there’s a huge difference between reading his height on paper and seeing him in action. And at no point during Central Michigan’s 97–87 win over Ohio did I stop noticing Keene’s height. But I also noticed something else: His existence as a basketball player is almost incomprehensible.

Marcus Keene (Getty Images)
Marcus Keene (Getty Images)

If you’ve yet to see Keene play, the point guard’s game probably isn’t what you think. He’s not like Isaiah Thomas, the 5-foot-9 Boston Celtics star who is averaging 29.9 points per game by scoring in a variety of ways. He’s also not like Stephen Curry, Jimmer Fredette, Adam Morrison, or any other mid-major scoring machine from college basketball’s recent past. That’s because Keene gets his points almost exclusively from one-on-one plays. You’re probably thinking that all those guys I just mentioned are/were great one-on-one players, too, so let me stop you right there. When I say Keene scores basically only in isolation situations, I mean that literally. For most great players, going one-on-one is a side dish that complements their overall game. For Keene, iso plays are his side dish, appetizer, soup, salad, entrée, and dessert. He went 15-for-25 from the field (and 9-for-18 from 3) for 41 points on Tuesday, and he used maybe five screens the entire game.

No, seriously. When he didn’t have the ball against the Bobcats, Keene stood still on the perimeter, presumably to conserve energy. When he did have the ball, Central Michigan set a screen for him once every handful of possessions, and even then he half-heartedly used them, waited for the screener to roll to the basket and get out of his way, and retreated toward half court to reset before attacking his defender one-on-one. The Chippewas never feed the post and don’t seem to run set plays. Keene’s only teammate who can alleviate defensive pressure is Braylon Rayson, who’s also 5-foot-9. (By the way, Rayson is my pick to win the Khalid El-Amin Award, which goes to the best perimeter player in America who looks out of shape on first glance.) If the wheels in your head are turning as you try to figure out how someone at such a height disadvantage can average 30 points per game while playing this style, congratulations — you’re starting to understand what makes Keene a goddamn wizard. Feast your eyes on this.

The best part about the Marcus Keene Experience is that he doesn’t seemed fazed by how good he is, even though his explosion onto the national scene should be considered nothing short of stunning. Keene was a nonentity on the recruiting trail coming out of San Antonio in 2013, and he was OK in two seasons at Youngstown State before transferring to Central Michigan in 2015. After sitting out the 2015–16 campaign, though, he’s transformed into a star knocking on history’s door, as he’s vying to become the first Division I player to average 30-plus points in 20 years. He already has five 40-plus-point outbursts (including one 50-point performance) with at least eight games left on Central Michigan’s schedule. The Chippewas have a 16–8 record against unremarkable competition, so they’ll have to win the MAC tournament to make the Big Dance and give Keene a shot at March Madness immortality. But the ease with which he’s capable of taking over games makes this a distinct possibility. It’s something that absolutely has to happen, because Keene is a next-level entertainer.

At one point Tuesday night, Keene passed up an open shot and waited for a defender to close out so he could splash a 3 in his face. This confirmed my suspicion that his motivations go beyond simply putting the ball through the hoop. His true goal every night is to put on a show. It’s like he purposely makes things significantly harder than they need to be because he gets off on hearing opposing fans groan as he hits yet another step-back 30-footer (which happened plenty in Athens). Or, if he’s playing at home, his ultimate pleasure is hearing Central Michigan fans come to the verge of orgasm as he hits a game winner while they chant “M-V-P!

I know it seems like that sequence in the above clip — Keene dribbling out the clock before throwing up contested garbage — happened only because it was an end-of-game situation. I assure you that that’s what Keene’s normal possessions look like, too. The question, then, is why nobody has figured out how to stop him. How can a guy who’s this short always get off a step-back 3 when everyone in the arena expects it’s coming?

Marcus Keene (Getty Images)
Marcus Keene (Getty Images)

For one, it’s virtually impossible to block a step-back jumper, especially when a shooter releases the ball as quickly as Keene does. For most players, a step-back is one move in their arsenal; they might practice it as much as they practice floaters or one-dribble pull-ups. But because Keene is so short and has to create separation from his defender nearly every time he shoots, the step-back has become his default jump shot, and he unleashes it with the same confidence (and often the same accuracy) that an average guard would a routine jumper.

The other factor is that as soon as defenders attempt to anticipate Keene’s step-back, he makes them look stupid by blowing past en route to an easy layup or a dump-off pass to a big man for a dunk. And the first time this happens during a game, Keene has opponents right where he wants them, because for the rest of the night they have to make a choice: Sell out to take away his step-back jumper, or play a half step off to make sure he doesn’t sprint by for a layup. Most choose the latter approach, which gives Keene the room he needs to do his thing. It’s a devastating conundrum that forces defenders to rewire everything their brains have previously been taught: They can’t process whether to concede a layup or a step-back, fade-away 3.

And that’s why Keene loves going one-on-one so much. He knows that defenders are helpless against him, and that turning to teammates means introducing extra bodies into the mix. So he does everything himself and redefines what it means to have bad shot selection in the process. Keene is what you would get if Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith merged into one 5-foot-9 guard, all the way down to the fact that he doesn’t even bother trying to pretend that he cares on defense.

For better and worse, Keene is unlike anything college basketball has ever seen, and it defies logic how he’s been able to maintain his pace over the course of an entire season. He’s been so special that I need a thesaurus to convey how splendiferous and transmundane he is, so I’m just going to stop trying to explain the unexplainable and demand that you MUST see Keene play (preferably in person) for yourself. Even if he’s half as good as he was on Tuesday night, I promise you it will be worth every second of your time.