Calvin Cage arrived on campus with a sweet instinct for shooting the basketball and a defiant attitude that today makes him one of the toughest players to defend in the Mid-American Conference.
The physical aspect of the game was never hard, but once he learned to embrace the mental and maturational facets of the game, Cage developed into a MAC Player of the Year candidate. Generously listed at 6-foot, Cage took over the leadership mantle from Turner Battle and has led the University at Buffalo to a record of 15-6 overall and 5-5 in conference play heading into tonight's game against Miami (Ohio) at 7 in Alumni Arena.
Cage, a senior guard from Capitol Heights, Md., is among the league's leaders per game in scoring (17.6), assists (3.1), three-point percentage (.424) and free-throw percentage (.813). He's so respected throughout the league that he occasionally draws double teams. Despite starting only five games last year, he was voted by his peers as one of the best players in the MAC, pound for pound.
"That just shows my opponents have a level of respect for my game," Cage said. "Even after everything I went through in the league and over the last four years, I'm still getting the type of respect I think I deserve."
To foes, he's the ant at your picnic, the in-law who never leaves the kitchen, the headache that won't go away.
"I've seen him break people's backs over the last three years with some big shots," said Ball State coach Tim Buckley. "Some guys are cut out for that. Calvin was well-groomed for the position he's in right now. He had a chance to go against one of the better point guards we've had in our league for quite sometime."
But there were growing pains, something UB coach Reggie Witherspoon says Cage still battles. There was a time you were more likely to see a mummy wiggle before Cage would admit he was wrong.
"We knew Calvin had the ability. Where he struggled was his maturity," Witherspoon said. "He had to embrace the notion that he had to mature more. I told him once he did, the sky's the limit."
Cage initially valued only the physical aspect of the game and was at a crossroads with Witherspoon. Cage was successful in high school and didn't see the need to change.
"You need to mature," Witherspoon told him.
Cage shrugged his shoulders, "What's maturity got to do with basketball?"
Cage preferred to carry a chip on his shoulder.
He was always told he was too small for basketball yet ended up being one of the top players from the Washington, D.C., area as a senior at Bladensburg High School in Maryland. Cage's father, Calvin Sr., played the same way growing up on the west side of Chicago, going up against the likes of Mark Aguirre, before moving on to Central State University in Ohio.
Witherspoon switched Cage, a point guard throughout high school, to shooting guard because of Battle and to take advantage of Cage's shooting ability. But clang, clang, clang went Cage's game.
He went 0 for 8 in his collegiate debut against Cornell and 7 for 35 over the next seven games before scoring a season-high 24 points against Northwestern. Cage quickly slipped back into the hole by going 3 of 20 over the next four games and shot 27 percent from the field and 23.2 percent from three-point range for the 2002-03 season, abysmal for someone with the reputation of a shooter.
"I was like, 'Why am I missing so much?' " Cage said. "In high school, they didn't keep how many shots you made and missed. All they kept was how many you scored."
He was encouraged to keep shooting and spent hours in the gym learning how to catch and shoot.
"I put up a couple of hundred shots a day over the summer," Cage said.
The breakthrough came near the end of his sophomore year in the program's signature victory over Kent State. Cage scored 18 points, which ignited a tear for the remainder of the season, when he averaged 16 points and shot 25 of 45 from three-point range.
"From then on, it was time to show what kind of player I am," he said.
The Bulls will stagger and wobble. Cage's shot will labor and hiss. And then, when it's time for the kill, Cage will usually score baskets until the game is saved. The opponent looks at empty hands and wonders how the game slipped away.
"If I was going to a gun fight in the Old West," Buckley said, "I'd want to take old Calvin with me."
That makes Cage smile.
"I went through a lot of adversity," he said. "But it only made me better."