Its that time of year again. It's getting cold outside, there are reports of snow falling on the ground, and the local arenas are filling with excitement of another season of basketball. For Western Michigan, it's a bittersweet year, as they attempt to defend their MAC West title, and go for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2004 (the last time any West team won the MAC)
The Zoo is bursting with expectations, mostly because the hockey team is doing so well, and the football team isn't. Is it too much to ask for at least 2 good teams per year? Anyways, this Bronco team returns most of the talent they used to propel themselves from the David Kool era, to that MAC West title last year.
Last Year: As stated before, Western began a "rebuilding" year going 1-4 in their first 5 games. Then they got hot. They would win their next four games, and put themselves above .500 entering their holiday tournament. Despite a 7th place finish, WMU would rally for a 7-6 record entering conference play.
That's where the Broncos shined, going 11-5, including sweeping rivals Central and Eastern Michigan, and somehow dropping a loss to Toledo. I still don't get that. I was at the 2nd Toledo-WMU game in Kalamazoo, and Toledo was down 45-7 at one point. It's mind bottling. Anyways, the MAC West title gave the Broncos the 2-seed in the MAC tourney, where they lost to Akron, again, in the semi-finals.
The Broncos got an invite to the Collegeinsider.com tournament, where they beat Tennessee Tech in the opening round before losing to Buffalo in a close game that very few saw. All-in-all, not bad for a team supposed to be "rebuilding"
Departing Players: Western loses a total of 3 players from last year's squad. Insane. One of those players RARELY saw PT, so scratch him. Another was senior Alex Wolf, who was a 3-pt specialist. They seem to be a dime a dozen these days. The big loss was "He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named". He took his talents to Detroit after a stellar Freshman year, where he showed how athletic he was, and how much potential he has. He could be a player like his dad, who knows? But he is no longer with the Broncos, and is a touchy subject to all Bronco alum, students, and faithful fans. (If you really have to know his name, its Juwan Howard Jr.)
New Faces: I had to do some "research" on this one. Exhibition games are good for something it turns out, scouting new talent. This Austin Richie is very scrapy. In the game against K-College, he couldn't hit any of his jumpers, but had nice intensity, and ball skills. He should be a fun player to watch, and a future leader. Just needs to get rid of the baby face.
The rotation will probably see more of old faces in Dan Loney and Shayne Whittington. Maybe some Brandon Pokley too. Tough to tell.
Another freshman to watch is Hayden Hoerdemann. He was at point part of the K-College game, but was clearly overwhelmed at times, taking a 10-second call at one point. He did show signs of being able to hit a jumper, but beyond that, might not have to skills right now to be a solid replacement.
Schedule: Oh dang. This schedule is chock full of goodies. The first home game that is worth something isn't until November 30th. Ouch. Western also has the possibility of playing Purdue twice in the span of 6 days, courtesy of having a non-conference game with the Boilermakers right after being in a tournament with them. It would take both the Broncos and Boilers to match each other in Round 1 for this to happen, and Western has a tough Temple squad.
Moving on, Western has Gonzaga and Duke on the road as well. Bronco fans, please lower your expectations this year out of conference. A now big match-up is a Thursday night game at Detroit. Huge in the fact that it is the last Detroit-WMU match-up for a while (until either Coach Hawkins forgives Detroit, or he is no longer coach). If you don't know the story behind this now rivalry, let's put it like this: Detroit will have 2 WMU transfers on their squad after having stellar years for the Broncos.
The conference schedule has the Broncos slated to host defending MAC Champs Akron, but going on the road against tough Ohio and Kent State squads. Western will again end their season on the road at Central Michigan, where they absolutely owned the Chips last year in their new building. (We have a running joke here that they built it for us to own them on.)
I love that video. Anyways, moving on.
Expectations and Predictions: With that non-conference schedule, it'll be tough to be .500 entering MAC play, but I want to see effort, and intensity. As for play itself, I think a lot of Bronco fans are thinking MAC Title this year. It will be interesting to see how that goes without Mr "Take-My-Talents-To-Detroit", but should be attainable. Flenard Whitfield is an absolute beast, and if Matt Stainbrook can play bigger, then the Broncos can dominate the paint.
As for the back court, Mike Douglas and Demetrius Ward are a good 1-2 combo to feed the ball around. The big key again will be the SF position, where Nate "360" Hutcheson split time with "Detroit" last year, and it worked well. Hutcheson is a jack-of-all-trades. He can dunk, block, drain 3's, but he still needs work to be that complete player. Now a junior, that should be fixed.
All-in-all, Western should win the MAC West again, given that they lose very little, and gain experience. Had they not lost Howard Jr, they would be my pick to win the MAC right now, but I cannot give the Broncos that given the stranglehold the East has on that title. As for post-season, the NIT won't take the Broncos, because their record will be scarred by that schedule, but they will probably make another collegeinsider.com tournament appearance.