In anticipation of Tuesday night's huge conference opener between Akron and Western Michigan, we put our heads together and came up with some questions about the two teams. On the Akron side of things, both Matt Hammond (MH) and I (BH) asked and answered questions while Ben Roush (BR) held down the fort for all things WMU.
MH: The loss of Shayne Whittington looks evident so far from the viewpoint of someone who doesn't watch a ton of Western Michigan basketball. Why do you think the Broncos have had trouble with teams like Northwestern and Northeastern? Is it the loss of a huge low presence?
BR: Not having someone like Whittington down low has had some negative impacts on the Bronco offense, but it's not as bad as you'd think. Forward Connar Tava has really stepped in offensively and is doing well replicating Whittington's successes shooting from short-range. Against Northeastern though, Western really missed Whittington's defensive capabilities. We just weren't able to make enough stops that probably could have been made with Whittington. That'll be a big issue as we move into conference play. That Northwestern game can't be pegged on anyone specifically. We played a completely uninspired second half and deserved the loss.
MH: When you look at the statistics, you see that David Brown and Tava are lighting it up. Does this mean that the other players like Austin Richie and Tucker Haymond are underperforming?
BR: I don't think so. Richie has always been more of a distributor and game manager, so the fact he's averaging twelve points per game right now is actually pretty great. If anything, I'd like to see more assists from him than points. Ok, that's not true, points are good too. I wouldn't say Haymond is underperforming either. Right now coach Hawkins is just focused on the best two scorers/athletes on the team, so Haymond won't be scoring as much. He's doing great defensively and scoring when the offense rotates to him.
BH: What do you think is Western Michigan's gameplan heading into this game? Do you think they try to attack the rim or establish a post presence against an Akron squad with little depth in the frontcourt?
BR: The thing about WMU's offense is that it's kind of streaky. If they hit their groove, it's beautiful, but I'm always terrified we're two turnovers from having the wheels fall completely off. So for this game I think we try to stay strong at the post, because I think it would offer a bit more stability. Let Tava and Haymond post-up and take some short range jumpers or kick the ball back out to Brown/Richie. This won't be easy though, since even though Akron is lacking depth up front, WMU's front court isn't especially large. And usually attacking the rim is out for Western because it isolates Tava and Brown too much.
BH: Score prediction?
BR: This is a really intriguing game to start the season with two very competent teams, both with legitimate shots at the MAC title. I think this stays close for about 80% of the game, but Akron pulls away with the home court advantage. WMU 65, Akron 70.
Let's put our thing down flip it and reverse it!
BR: You've had some great wins against major conference teams - that game against South Carolina stands out in particular - but have dropped some games to pretty average teams, like Middle Tennessee. Were those losses just off nights for the Zips, or signs of deeper issues?
MH: The losses to Middle Tennessee and North Dakota State were frustrating games. The Middle Tennessee game was a big challenge because Middle Tennessee plays outstanding defense. That was one of the first times that freshman point guard Noah Robotham wasn't able to do what he wanted to do throughout the game. That, to me, was the first time he actually looked like a freshman out there. That could be a sign of lack of depth in that they don't have a second true point guard to come off the bench.
The North Dakota State game was a failure to make shots. Nothing was falling. Not even the two best shooters on the team could get going that game, and they haven't really gotten it going at all to this point. The shooters - Jake Kretzer and Reggie McAdams - haven't quite played to their best abilities so far this year and those two make up for most of the three-point shooting, but I think that one was an off night for all of the Zips.
BR: Defense has been a strong suit for the Zips so far, only allowing 61 points per game. Do you attribute this more to pressure on the perimeter, or strength down low?
MH: There is a depth issue down low for the Zips, but they have been able to keep teams out of the lane, so far. Kwan Cheatham has been able to keep teams out of the lane by blocking 1.6 shots per game. Isaiah Johnson is pretty slow at almost 300 pounds, but has a 7-foot-5 wingspan and is in the back of players' minds when they drive to the lane.
The defense on the perimeter has been excellent in most games this year. The two true freshmen Robotham and Antino Jackson are quick on their feet and have quick hands to give offenses trouble. Deji Ibitayo is also playing great defense inside and out off of the bench. He is having a fantastic senior season after have three rather mediocre previous seasons as a Zip. So, there is little offensive depth on this team, but the defensive depth is some of the best you'll find in the MAC.
BR: Pat Forsythe, Cheatham Jr., Robotham, and Ibitayo are all averaging about ten points per game this season. Who do you think has the most success against the smaller, but relatively quick Brown and Gold defense?
BH: I'm going to say that Forsythe and Cheatham will have the most success, mainly because of their height. I like the match-up the Forsythe gets against Drake LaMont; I think that LaMont will be a bit nervous in his first conference game on the road against a tough opponent. As for Cheatham, I don't think that Western Michigan has anyone that matches up with him. It's tough to stop a 6-foot-9 player who hangs out at the three point line most of the time but can also score down low, so Cheatham could have some open looks. I would guess that maybe Tava or Haymond would guard him, but they're both only 6-foot-6. Guard play is a strong point for the Broncos so I'd imagine Robotham and Ibitayo may struggle a little bit.
BR: Final score?
BH: I'm with you, I think it'll be really close. Akron is at home but school doesn't start for Akron students until the twelfth, which could negate that home court advantage. I still think Akron is able to pull it out, but not by much. Let's go Akron 60, Western Michigan 57.