When we look back someday on the upcoming 2015-2016 Bronco basketball season, we could see a season that defines the legacy of the program under Hawkins. WMU enters this season having appeared in three straight postseason tournaments in 2012-2015, the second being a trip to the NCAA Tournament. For this program, the current state of affairs is not unfamiliar territory.
Hawkins took over for a program in the 2003-2004 season coming off of an NIT berth. Two years later the Broncos had appeared in postseason play twice more, including a trip to the NCAA round of 64 in Hawkins first season. The 2002-2005 and 2012-2015 teams are bookends to a 10 year gap between WMU's NCAA Tournament losses to Vanderbilt and Syracuse. Given the peak and valley past of its predecessors, the 2015-2016 Bronco basketball season goes a long way towards making sure decade long championship droughts are a thing of the past.
Following its exit from the NIT in 2005, the Broncos did not appear in post-season tournament play until five years later in the 2010-2011 CIT. In that time, Western Michigan finished above .500 only twice and managed 20 wins just once; hard to believe with David Kool, WMU's eventual all-time leading scorer, on the roster for a majority of that span. A program that had been invited to the nation's two top post-season tournaments three years in a row, had seen arguably the best player in its history come and go without hanging a MAC championship banner in Kalamazoo.
Of course it wasn't all bad. The Broncos never finished worse than third in the MAC West division and even managed a three way tie for the division title in 2009 despite winning only 10 games on the year. Despite the up and down nature of the program, the Broncos have been tough and consistent. In the Hawkins era the Broncos have a 123-80 record in conference play to go along with seven first place finishes in the MAC West. But while the program paints a portrait of consistency in the West, the East division has historically been better. Hence, the three way tie at 7-9 for the West in 2009. The only other program in the conference with a coach nearly as tenured as Hawkins is Akron and its boss, Keith Dambrot. In the Dambrot era at Akron, the Zips have eclipsed 20 wins in all but one of Dambrot's 11 seasons at the helm and show no signs of slowing down. WMU, like any other program in the MAC West, wants to have a resume like Dambrot's Zips. If the Broncos are the team from the West to get there, we will know after this season.
Avoiding another drought
This season's preseason script reads much like the last. WMU returns a host of starters, leadership, and key contributors. As the summer winds down, many will peg the Broncos as a potential preseason championship contender. Hustle Belt's Matt Hammond sees WMU holding down the fourth overall seed heading into the MAC tournament in Cleveland, putting them in a prime position to claim its second title in three seasons. The window is open for Western Michigan, but while the lack of roster turnover may make this season seem like anything but a crossroads for the program, the history says otherwise.
WMU is not rebuilding, and it has the pieces to avoid repeating its stretch from 2005-2010, making the stakes much higher for 2015. The major question is whether or not the departure of David Brown proves to have the same level of drag on the team that the departure of Shayne Whittington had on last year's edition. The identity of this program is not going to change so as long as Hawkins runs the show. It will work hard, play great defense and make jump shots. The problem is, last year's team didn't do the latter two all that well down the stretch. If the team is truly on the brink of being great and not simply beginning another postseason drought, it mustn't squander its talents. Nobody on the floor will be David Brown, it's going to take a collective effort. Thomas WIlder must be the guard from the second half of the season. Tucker Haymond must take and make big shots. Drake Lamont must be more consistent on both sides of the ball and Connar Tava must be the leader to do it.
Ultimately, the question is the same as last year: How do the Broncos respond to yet another departing star? It was tough without Whittington, and it will be tough without Brown. If WMU is going to become a program with some staying power at the top, it must capitalize on its returning pieces this season. To be blunt, WMU has an opportunity to make a run at being the best team of the second half of this decade. I think they can do it, but it isn't exactly chasing greatness in a weak conference. The MAC is a parity driven league, and that parity is definitely not driven by widespread mediocrity. Setting the tone in 2015 is the centerpiece to ensuring the program isn't waiting another decade for a MAC title, and doing so means going through some damn good programs. Nobody wants to see the Hawkins era end like the Bill Cubit years in football. Prolonged exposure to being "good but not great" can cause the bottom to fall out. The goals for this year's team are the same as the previous three. The difference? This season provides a glimpse into whether championship droughts are the exception - and not the rule.