Western Michigan MAC Men's Basketball Mid-Season Report Card

How far can Austin Richie take the Broncos this season? - Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Hustle Belt midseason reviews continue with this look at Shayne Whittington and the Broncos, defending west division champions.

RECORD SO FAR

11-7 (4-2 MAC)

BEST WINS

The road wins at Miami and Kent State aren't quite the best of the year, but may speak as much to the team's potential as any. They're quality in-conference road wins that are the foundations for building a high seed in the MAC tournament, and maybe even a case for a bid to another post-season tourney, as the Broncos received last year.

November is a long time ago, but we also shouldn't forget the neutral court win against New Mexico State (RPI 80) without a suspended Shayne Whittington.

But the best win of the year so far was clearly the conference opener hosting Toledo. While this Western Michigan team can occasionally struggle to fill the basket, they've also had flashes of scoring in bunches. The Broncos absolutely ambushed the Rockets to the tune of 47 first half points and up to a 22-point lead before fending off a late charge.

IMPORTANT LOSSES

There was no shame in a 6-point road loss to Missouri, in which the Broncos held the Tigers to about 15 points under their then-season average. That Missouri team likes to push the pace - honestly this was probably an omen of competitiveness against the likes of Miami and Toledo.

Not necessarily the most important, but probably the ugliest, losses were to Northwestern and Eastern Michigan, in which the Broncos totaled 72 points.

When we get around to seeding teams for the Q in March, though, the second half collapse against Bowling Green may be the loss the Broncos most regret. Yes, Bowling Green is probably a better team than a lot of us were giving them credit for. But blowing a 15-point second half lead - at home - is a lousy way to lose a conference game, especially against a team that was scuffling at the time. With the current structure of the MAC tournament, teams really want to be in the top 4 seeds in order to have any chance at winning (even the 3 & 4 seeds will have to win 3 games to win). It figures that Toledo and Akron are favorites to claim the top 2 spots. WMU must hope that the Bowling Green loss isn't the difference between 4 & 5.

BEST PLAYERS

David Brown doesn't get enough press. He's the conference's leading scorer on the year, and hits 40% of his three-pointers (in conference play). Brown doesn't rack up a lot of peripherals - he's a shooter - but there are plenty of guys scoring less in the league who attract more attention. And he's just about the only guy on this team who can really create his own shot. Connar Tava has also been a difference maker, especially in conference play. You may know that he's third on the team in scoring and second in rebounding. But how about first in both assists and steals? An unfortunate proclivity for turnovers is all that's keeping Tava from being an elite MAC player.

PLAYERS WHO NEED TO STEP UP

Austin Richie isn't having a bad year, but in 32 minutes per game you might like to see more than 7 points & 2 assists. This team doesn't need much to push it to the top of the conference. If Richie can mature into either (1) a 10-12 point scorer, or (2) a 4-5 assist guy, that could be enough. I almost don't want to see him score - there are plenty of good options from shooting guard to small forward to center on this club. Richie has the chance to be a distributor here, and this will be especially important when the team's offense gets sluggish.

I also can't do a Western Michigan summary without at least a few lines about Shayne Whittington. Whittington is a top-10 scorer and rebounder in the league, and is a dependable contributor for this team. What he hasn't been, to this point, is exceptional. He doesn't put up jaw-dropping stats lines, and at times this year, he doesn't necessarily command a presence on either end of the floor that would befit a star player in the league. I loved the way he came out in the second half against Ball State on Sunday - looked for his shot, ripped down defensive rebounds, made opportunities on the offensive glass, and helped the Broncos pull away in an ugly game.

Senior year. Heading down the stretch. I'd like to see Whittington step up more. This doesn't mean trying to put up 25 & 15 each night, but it might mean trying to definitively win tough inside matchups on certain nights when it's important. Like their next game. Against Javon McCrea and Buffalo.

GRADE

B+. The loss to EMU was ugly but understandable - this Broncos team was never going to win them all. The BGSU loss is harder to swallow, but offset at least a little by the Toledo win. This is not a Western Michigan team that was picked to be especially competitive in the MAC this year, but coach Hawkins and the seniors have the team poised for a springtime surge.

NEXT 4 GAMES

January 29 @ Buffalo

February 1 Central Michigan

February 5 Ohio

February 9 @ Northern Illinois

GLASS HALF-FULL

The Broncos use Brown's backcourt scoring and the frontcourt two-pronged Tava / Whittington attack to overwhelm the lesser teams in the MAC. They win a tight game at Buffalo, and lose only 3 more times (@ Toledo, @ Ohio, home Akron). WMU finishes 13-5 and gets the 4 seed in the MAC tournament. There they win their opener against #5 (Buffalo?), then an overtime thriller against Toledo, a team they've already proven they can play with. It's on to the finals where a tough battle results in a 2-point loss to Akron only because Reggie McAdams hits a half-court 3 at the buzzer. The 20-win Broncos squeeze into the NIT, winning a game on the road before losing in the second round. A decent nucleus of Connor Tava, Austin Richie, and Tucker Haymond returns next season, and at least one of the other heralded freshman recruits at forward (maybe Mario Matusovic) matures into a solid starter. The Broncos take advantage of the weaker west division to continue to post winning records in MAC conference play for the next few years.

GLASS HALF-EMPTY

The Broncos revert to having scoring issues, especially on the road. They lose four of their remaining six conference road games, and struggle to beat top teams like Ohio and Akron at home in Kalamazoo as well. They still finish the season at a respectable 10-8 in conference, probably about a 6 seed. They beat the 11 seed (Northern Illinois?) at home on the Monday of the conference tournament, but they don't need to book a hotel in Cleveland as they're bounced on day 1 by the 7 seed (Bowling Green?) in an uninspiring, low-scoring affair. The overall record is not enough to qualify for a post-season tournament, and with the loss of seniors David Brown and Shayne Whittington, the team heads into next season looking at a rebuilding process not likely to include competing for a MAC title for a few years hence. WMU fans are left to wonder what could've been with Darius Paul on the squad.

PROJECTION

This is a good Broncos team that figures to play very well against lower tier teams, including the three current doormats of the west division. If they can win their rematch against Eastern Michigan, I don't see two east divisions (other than Akron) finishing with better league records. So yes, I think a 3 or 4 seed in the tournament is there for the taking. Toledo's defense is porous enough that they're a good matchup for this offensively challenged team - I think Akron poses the bigger threat, and maybe Ohio would too given the stout defense.

Final guess: 12-6 MAC, 4 seed in tournament... but loss to 5 seed Ohio in their first game in Cleveland.

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