The Broncos came into the season after struggling the year before. Under coach Hawkins, it was a rare blip on an otherwise impressive resume. When discussing the 2016-17 version of the Broncos, I kept hearing the phrase, “Work in progress.”
This seemed a little funny to me, because they had a solid core of three returning players. Thomas Wilder was a MAC Player of the Year candidate. Tucker Haymond was already over 1000 points on his career, and averaged 15.9 the year before. The Broncos also had Drake LaMont, a 6’10 center who averaged 7.8 points per game as a sophomore.
Early in the season, those prognostications of struggle were proven correct. After winning their first game against little regarded Marygrove, the Broncos rattled off 4 straight losses. At times in those games, the Broncos looked like the team I expected, but eventually their youth and lack of continuity would prove to be the greater force.
The losses continued to pile up after that, with an occasional win against a lightly regarded opponent.
Ironically or not, some of Western Michigan’s best performances came in their early losses. They played defending champions Villanova tough until the last minutes. They took a Markelle Fultz led Washington team to the wire. As good as they looked in some of the losses, they looked equally terrible in others, though almost always displaying heart.
Once MAC play started, the pattern repeated. They played Akron tough on the road, and knocked off Toledo and Kent State, but still lost 7 of their first 10 league games.
Coach Hawkins made a subtle change, and started sophomore Seth Dugan in place of Drake LaMont. Both were splitting about equal time before the change, and continued to do so after. Dugan seemed to gain confidence because of the switch, while Drake LaMont reacted well to the quasi-demotion and played with a better sense of urgency.
While not a game changer on paper, the move was a catalyst for a change. Instead of moments of brilliance mixed with a lot of bad play, the script flipped. The team put together much longer runs of offensive consistency, while also rotating and playing much better team defense.
The change started before the switch, as WMU played CMU and Ball State tough on the road, but what happened after the switch was just short of a miracle.
The Broncos rattled off 9 wins in a row. While that may not seem like that huge of an accomplishment, it is when you start the season 3-7 in league play, and 7-15 overall.
Aside from the implications of overall talent when you are sitting at 7-15, a lot of bad things can happen not related to basketball ability. There can be a plethora of distractions. Guys that aren’t playing can start to think their lack of playing time is the reason for the terrible results. Guys that are playing can pack it in, and start to focus on a career after basketball.
Not only did coach Hawkins prevent this team from falling off the rails, he coached them into one of the better teams in the MAC by the end of the season. A three point loss to a very good Ball State team in the tournament ended the run, and the season. It put the overall Broncos record to 16-16, and 11-8 against the MAC.
In any conference, but especially the MAC, you need to judge a team on their conference record, because non-conference schedules can vary so wildly. When some 20 year old fan 30 years from now looks back at this team on the stat sheet, he will see that overall record, and think, “Bleh.” Or whatever word those futuristic kids use for somewhere near average. That kid will be totally wrong. Take that, you little know-it-all from the future!
What this team accomplished was fantastic, and with all due respect to coach Dambrot at Akron, I mean Duquesne, coach Hawkins did a Coach of the Year job.
Record: 16-16 overall, 11-7 in the MAC, Tied for First in the West.
Points Leader: Thomas Wilder, 19.3 points per game
Rebounds Leader: Brandon Johnson, 5.5 rebounds per game
Assists Leader: Wilder, 3.8 assists per game
Tucker Haymond: 14.8 points per game in 2017, 1545 total points in his career.
Thomas Wilder: The junior declared for the NBA draft, but left open the possibility of returning to Western Michigan.
Reggie Jones: 9.4 ppg
Brandon Johnson: 8 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Drake LaMont: 6.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg
Seth Dugan: 6.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg
Bryce Moore: 5.1 ppg
Jarrin Randall: 2.4 ppg
Josh Davis: 2 ppg
Jared Printy: 1.8 ppg, 47.4% from three