The Western Michigan Broncos weren't supposed to be representing the MAC in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Little more than a month after the 2012-2013 men's basketball regular season came to an end Western Michigan forward Darius Paul announced he was leaving the school.
Paul had just wrapped up a MAC Freshman of the Year award while averaging 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds en route to capturing the MAC West title and a No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. The Broncos fell to Ohio in the MAC semifinals, before moving on to the 2013 College Basketball Invitational Tournament and advancing to the semifinals. It was a big season for a Broncos team that was returning some solid seniors and with Paul had the makings to be a real threat in conference that was losing a lot of stars after the season. But then he left.
"I had no idea this was coming," head coach steve Hawkins said at the time.
Paul was primed to be a focal point in the Broncos offense for years to come. It was a huge blow for a team that just the season before had lost starting center Matt Stainbrook to Xavier after he decided to transfer. For a team that seemed to finally be poised to make a run at its first MAC Championship in a decade suddenly, things were looking down. With no real splashes in the incoming recruiting class it seemed like another middle of the pack season was coming up for the Broncos.
In the preseason media poll WMU was picked to finish second in their own division, behind MAC title favorites Toledo, and didn't receive a single first place vote. Our own staff said they were the seventh best team in the conference heading into the 2013-2014 season. Citing an unproven bench and a lack of experienced veterans we said "Hawkins will need to reach way deep into his bag of coaching tricks."
Roughly 20 weeks later I stood on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena as the No. 1 seed Western Michigan Broncos had just completed a second-half throttling of those preseason favorite Rockets, 98-77. It was an impressive performance to close out a season full of them. Senior David Brown, a guard who after seasons of being a so-so player burst out in a big way by winning the MAC scoring title in his final season, scored 32 in the win. The Broncos got the MAC's automatic bid and are facing No. 3 seed Syracuse in round 2 of the NCAA Tournament.
It's a much different position than where we all thought the Broncos would be this time of the year, so what happened?
Well, it really all comes down to one game. Like the Broncos last conference game of the year (the MAC Championship win) they started off conference play against Toledo. Sitting at 7-5 on the season WMU was a mighty underdog against a Rockets squad that had lived up to the preseason hype. Toledo had just wrapped up a 12-1 non-conference slate. The Rockets' only blemish: a 10-point loss to then No. 16 Kansas, at Allen Fieldhouse.
The Broncos were 3.5 point underdog in their own house to one of the most prolific offenses in college basketball. All five Rockets starters were averaging double-digits at this point and though WMU had a 2-game winning streak, those wins came against an NAIA school and Prairie View A&M (a mid-tier member of arguably the worst Division I conference in the nation).
Yet when the clock started rolling the Broncos were clearly the better team. WMU jumped out to an early 16-3 run and never looked back. Sophomore Connar Tava didn't miss a shot from the field, going 9-for-9 to score a career high 25 points and Shayne Whittington added a double-double as WMU went on to win 87-76, holding one of the most efficient offenses in the nation to 36 percent from the field.
It was a statement win if ever there was one. The Broncos announced, in the loudest way possible, that they were a force to be reckoned with. 17 games later WMU wrapped up the No. 1 seed and a share of the MAC regular season title with Toledo. A week late the Brown and Gold met UT in Cleveland and proved once and for all who the best team in the MAC was. Though it wasn't official until the final buzzer sounded at The Q, WMU really won the MAC title way back on January 8 in that conference opener. That's where everything changed and set the Broncos on their path that has them where they are today, preparing for a battle with one of the nation's best teams in the NCAA Tournament.
The Broncos aren't being given much of a chance in this game, but if there's one thing we've learned it's to never bet against the Brown and Gold.