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Western Michigan - Akron Preview

The MAC conference schedule tips off Wednesday with 6 match-ups. Akron-Western Michigan is one of the most intriguing.

Gregory Shamus

The non-conference portion of the schedule is over, and the all important section of the schedule starts next Wednesday. Eagle Totem, the Eastern Michigan blog, had a great thought today about the cruciality of the conference schedule and how we shouldn't place that much importance on the non-conference schedule:

Here’s the other good news. None of their game results to date matter.

This was never a team that was going to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. From the start of the season, the only way they’d realistically get in is by winning the MAC. Neither the win over Purdue, nor the loss at Kentucky, nor anything else that’s happened so far has any impact on the MAC race, except one thing.

The one thing that matters so far this season — the only thing that matters so far — is what the team has learned. How they’ve grown. We won’t know for sure for a few more weeks, but my sense is still that this team is entirely capable of getting the job done in the MAC.

Obviously this applies to Eastern Michigan. But, you could say it applies to all the MAC teams. With the not-stellar performance of everyone in the non-conference schedule, no MAC team will get an at-large bid. Sorry. Which is why there is so much emphasis on the conference portion of the schedule. Every team is 0-0, with an equal chance of getting to the dance.

Brian Persky from the Western Michigan Rivals site joined me for an in-depth Q&A session about the Broncos-Zips match-up.

My questions to Brian:

1. What's your general take on the Broncos season so far? Impressed? Leaving you wanting more? About what you expected?

In short: pleasantly surprised. There wasn't one person in this town that thought this team would be heading into conference play with eight wins. Fans were hoping for a .500 record, and even that was considered to be optimistic by most. At the beginning of the season, I felt like the Loyola game (played on a neutral court) was going to tell us a lot about what kind of a year it was going to be. Not only did the Broncos beat Loyola by ten points, but they went on to win the entire tournament which included a five-point victory over tournament host South Florida on their home floor.

Beating High Point twice and Oakland at home (all three games were nail-biters) were also very good wins for this team. All five losses against Cornell, Michigan, Illinois State, Duquesne, and North Carolina State were probably about on par with what most people expected, although the greedy side of me thinks it would've been nice to snatch a victory or two from either Cornell and/or Duquesne. But Steve Hawkins and Bronco fans have got to be pleased with an 8-5 record at this point.

2. Which player has most impressed you so far? Is there someone who you think needs to step-up and start playing better in conference play?
Shayne Whittington. The maturation and growth that local sports fans here in Kalamazoo have witnessed since his days at nearby Lawrence H.S. is nothing short of amazing. Whittington went from a relatively unheralded two-star recruit with only one scholarship offer (WMU), to one of the most well-rounded big men in the Mid-American Conference. Following Western Michigan's victory against in-state opponent Oakland, head coach Greg Kampe had this to say about Shayne Whittington:

"We didn't recruit him, so I guess that tells you what I thought of him at that age. I mean I'd love to have him... I thought he was a big difference maker in the game. I think he's going to be a force in the MAC."

On the other hand, one player I would like to see step up and start playing better is probably sophomore point guard Austin Richie. This is a bit nit-picky on my part, but I think Richie is the guy that has the ability to put this team over the top into being a legitimate contender for the MAC title. Richie has played fairly well early on this season, but I'd still like to see him create more turnovers on defense and become more of a threat offensively

3. As we all know MAC games are a lot different than non-conference games. How do you think this young team will fare in conference play? Not necessarily record-wise, but do you see them being able to be physical enough to compete?
I originally picked the Broncos to finish third in the MAC West behind what most people expected to be the two clear cut favorites, Toledo and Eastern Michigan. If I got a mulligan for my MAC West Preseason ballot after seeing how all of the non-conference games played out, I'd probably shift Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan to first and second place respectively as the two new clear cut favorites, and then it pretty much feels like a free-for-all for third place after that.

I do think that the Broncos will continue to struggle in MAC East crossover games, however that's been the case with pretty much all of the MAC West teams. If the Broncos can steal one of the first two (Akron, Ohio), then watch out. I think regardless, this is a team that nobody is going to want to play come MAC Tournament time.

4. Specific to this game, do you see opening MAC play on the road with such a young team as a major worry? Or do you think being able to win at South Florida and come close at Duquesne as a sign that this team has no trouble with being on the road?

Honestly, no. Especially after the USF Tournament at the beginning of the year. What the USF Tournament really showed was just how beneficial the trip to Europe back in August was for this young team. Having an extra ten days of practice, four games played, and an invaluable amount of bonding time really gave this team a leg up on the competition early on in the non-conference schedule. Although their current road record may not reflect that quite yet because of some extremely tough match-ups, I think you'll see that trip continue to pay dividends throughout MAC play, and their road record will likely improve.

5. It seems like Keith Dambrot and Steve Hawkins are both here to stay in the MAC. What is the fanbases' opinion on Coach Hawk? Is there a situation where you ever see him leaving Kalamazoo, other than retirement?

You might be surprised to hear this, but there are somewhat mixed feelings with the relative success, or perceived lack thereof, in Hawkins' tenure at Western Michigan. Critics point to the Cubit-esque mediocre records and lack of post-season appearances. Supporters point to four 20-win seasons and five MAC West titles. Personally, I am not one of the critics.

Obviously last year was a huge disappointment on many levels. However, the ones that follow this program closely understand that a lot of that was well out of Hawkins' control. I wouldn't say his seat is warm by any means, but it's probably about room temperature; unfair as it may seem.

There have been a few times over the years that Hawkins was rumored to have been a finalist for other jobs (DePaul and San Francisco immediately come to mind), but I actually think he is relatively comfortable here in Kalamazoo for now. His wife recently gave birth to their second daughter, and just last year he signed a new five-year contract that runs through the 2015-2016 season. So I don't see him leaving anytime soon.

6. Jerry Palm from CBS included the Broncos in his most recent mock bracket. Is this feasible? Do you see the Broncos contending for the MAC Tournament Title in March?

I was shocked. I've got to believe this is based purely on current RPI rankings, since the Broncos are currently the highest ranked team in the Mid-American Conference at #55. Like I said earlier, I think the Broncos are an extremely dangerous team to play in any kind of a tournament format. But I don't think they are the best team in this conference by any means. The upper half? Yes.

Crazy things happen in the MAC Tournament. Just ask Eastern Michigan fans about what happened in last year's first round. If the Broncos can beat South Florida on their own floor, then I don't see why they couldn't beat a team like Akron or Ohio on a "neutral" court in Cleveland. Don't see it happening, but it's not completely out of the question with this group.

7. What is your view on Akron's team? Do you strongly dislike Alex Abreu and Zeke Marshall like everyone else does (especially Ohio fans)?
You probably aren't going to like this comparison as an Ohio-native, but Akron reminds me a lot of an Urban Meyer-led team. You don't like them, but you have to respect them. Truthfully, I've never liked the way that Zeke Marshall in particular conducts himself on the court -- and many WMU fans would probably agree with me there. But the guy can walk the walk, and you've got to respect that.

Akron is no doubt a team that Bronco fans would like to beat, but there's no question that Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, and probably even Kent State (historically), are higher on the pecking order in terms of the "strongly dislike" scale. I would say Eastern Michigan especially, after the Eagles came into Kalamazoo to clinch the MAC West title last year on the Broncos home floor. That's no disrespect towards Akron.

8. Give me a prediction for the game and a general prediction for the season.

I think depth and point guard play is what ultimately swings this match-up in favor of the Zips. I have no doubt in my mind that Western Michigan can match up in nearly every other position on the floor, but I saw Alex Abreu up close and in person at University Arena last year. He frequently made Mike Douglas look silly, and there's no reason he won't be able to do the same to either Austin Richie or Jared Klein. I don't see the Broncos getting blown out by any means, but this is a game I expect Akron to win. 77-66 Akron.

As far as the rest of the season goes, the Broncos are unfortunately faced with easily the toughest start in the conference (at Akron and vs. Ohio). Although the Broncos likely begin conference play 0-2, I think they bounce back and finish MAC play with a 9-7 record, finish second in the MAC West to Eastern Michigan, and earn a 6-seed overall come MAC Tournament time.

Brian's questions for me:

1. Akron has shown five different starting lineups in their first ten games. Do you believe this to be a product of some shuffling around and getting to know all of the new pieces, or is this pretty typical of Dambrot before conference play?
As a Western Michigan fan can sympathize with, Akron lost a good deal of experience with Nik Cvetinovic and Brett McClanahan graduating and Quincy Diggs being kicked off of the team. That's three starters, and Coach Dambrot needed the early season to figure out who will replace those minutes. Obviously, Demetrius Treadwell would naturally fill in to Cvetinovic's power forward spot. But the other two were up for grabs. Brian Walsh seems to have nailed down the off-guard spot, but the 3 is still up in the air. Chauncey Gilliam has been starting pretty regularly with Nick Harney coming off of the bench, which is what I think you'll see on January 9th. The compliance issues didn't help, and because of those Harney and Treadwell had to sit out the first three games. Looking at the minutes distribution so far, it looks like the starting lineup is set. The rotation, however, still needs to be shaped up.

2. Bronco fans assume the Zips will have somewhat of a different look this year with the loss of Quincy Diggs and the addition of Pat Forsythe. Just how different has this team been with those two changes?
I don't think it's changed too much, but there is more emphasis on getting the ball inside and less reliance on the three point shot. Forsythe has been a pleasant surprise inside, and is playing quality minutes off of the bench. Marshall and Treadwell lead the team in points per game, and they killed a bad Texas Southern team as well as Princeton in the paint. The one thing Akron hasn't developed yet is a consistent three point shooter a la Steve McNees, who could hit from anywhere. Brian Walsh has been very good (43%) and Alex Abreu is getting there (39%). But, they aren't the type of players that will be able to make a three from anywhere with a hand in their face like McNees.
3. From Keith Dambrot's perspective, what's this team's most disappointing loss of the season so far and why? From an Akron basketball fan perspective?
For Dambrot it has to be the Detroit loss. The Zips led for most of the game and really should have won it. But, little mistakes and shooting 11-22 from the free throw line doesn't help things. As a coach, you hate to see things like that contribute to a loss and turn a very winnable game into a frustrating loss. It would have been a good win too, because Detroit will probably win the Horizon League this year. For the fans, it's a toss-up between the Coastal Carolina and Oklahoma State losses. This mainly stems from the compliance department issue, where someone didn't turn in a form timely and Harney and Treadwell were forced to sit out both of these games. Being close losses (74-70 to CCU and 69-65 in overtime to OK State), fans felt that Tree and Harney would have made up the difference and turned those losses into wins. But, in my eyes, CCU was opening up a new arena and Oklahoma State is currently ranked, so those losses aren't necessarily terrible. Yes, they would have been great to have on the resume, but they aren't killers.

4. Much like Western Michigan, this Akron team seems to be loaded with young talent. Who are Akron fans most excited about for the future on this team? Who has been the most surprising? Most disappointing?
My excited and surprising player is the same: Jake Kretzer. I thought at the beginning of the year and Kretzer would be a likely redshirt candidate. Shows how much I know. Kretzer, a 6'7" guard/forward from small-town Waverly, Ohio, has put up big numbers for a freshman. He's averaged 7.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, and is shooting 40% from 3-point range. He's gotten more and more minutes in the past couple games, and was the catalyst in the overtime win against Middle Tennessee. The one guy I have been a little disappointed with is Chauncey Gilliam. Yes, he's had a couple nice games including 16 points at Detroit and 22 against UNC-Asheville. But he's had more duds, especially recently. He's scored 13 points in the last 4 games combined (mostly blowout wins, though), but he's not putting up the numbers I would expect out of a starter. I thought he'd be the team's leading scorer this year, but he's only averaging 7.5 points per game. It's nitpicking, especially with this good of a team, but if I had to pick a disappointment it'd be him. But, that may be only because I had such high expectations for him.

5. Who is Akron's "x-factor" that Coach Hawkins and the Broncos need to be careful not to overlook in the game-plan?
Nick Harney. Harney can give you 15 points and 6 boards one game and completely disappear the next. He's starting to play a lot better, and could be a big matchup problem for Western Michigan. When you think of Akron, you think about game-planning for Zeke Marshall, Alex Abreu, Brian Walsh and Demetrius Treadwell. But, if you forget about Harney, he can be the one that will beat you.

6. Not that I need to remind you, but Akron fell just short of winning a MAC championship last year against Ohio. Kind of a two part question here: Is the 2012-2013 season NCAA Tournament or bust? Does this team has something to prove?
Not necessarily. Coach Dambrot has done everything you can ask for except win in the post-season. Ohio's run to the Sweet 16 was great for the conference, but was bad for Dambrot. He knows that could have (and probably should have) been him leading Akron to the promised land, but a couple bounces of the ball go the wrong way and you're one and done in the NIT. To fully cement his legacy at Akron, he needs to win in the big dance. He's proven he can get there. Now, just win baby. For Zeke Marshall, however, getting to the tournament and winning is a must. When a highly touted recruit comes to a school like Akron, he's expected to be an all-conference performer and lead his team to the tournament. Marshall, however, needs to prove the hype and take over the conference like he was supposed to do in the eyes of many Zips fans. 6 straight MAC Championship game appearances are great and all, but you have to do better than 2-4 in those games.

7. What is the view from Akron, Ohio of this Western Michigan Broncos basketball team?
Three words: exciting, surprising, and young. I was surprised with the win over South Florida. I thought maybe the young Broncos could hang with them but had no business winning the game. I thought with all the fresh faces there would be an adjustment period, but I was sure wrong. I still want to see how they fare in MAC play, but I like what I'm seeing out of this team. I expect them to challenge Eastern Michigan for the MAC West title. I also think they've been a little lucky (as has Akron), as there hasn't been and significant injuries so far. That killed WMU last year, and they haven't experienced any adversity like that yet.

8. Prediction time (w/score): Last year, the Zips were lucky to walk away from University Arena with a 'W'. Do you think Akron cruises at home, or does Western Michigan avenge last year's overtime loss?
I think Akron will win by 10. It's WMU's first conference road game, and a young team usually doesn't come up with a win. Akron is playing well lately, and I think they can out-muscle the Broncos inside. I also like the guard match-up for Akron, an experienced Alex Abreu and Brian Walsh over Brandon Pokely and Austin Ritchie. It should be a great way to start of conference play!

Make sure to follow Brian (@BrianPersky) and Bronco Blitz (@WMURivals)