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MAC Men's Basketball Preview: Western Michigan Broncos

The Broncos are the model of consistency. But this season will start with one major problem.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Bronco basketball is back! Well so is all college basketball, but let's get pumped for Western! Last year the Broncos went a respectable 20-14, with a 10-8 record in the MAC. That was good enough for a third-place finish in the West Division. The season ended rather unceremoniously with a loss to Akron in the second round of the MAC tourney, along with a first-round loss to Cleveland State in the CIT. Easy to say we're hoping for slightly better results this year in the post-season.

Big personnel losses from last year are guards David Brown and Austin Richie - staples of the program for the last several years. But we'll get more into their departures later. Let's talk about our fearless leader and coach.

Head Coach: Steve Hawkins, 13th Year (224-169, 123-78 MAC)

Coach Hawk (as he's often referred to) is the longest tenured, and probably Godfather, of MAC men's basketball. He's found his sweet spot in Kalamazoo with a basic focus on the court - avoid mental mistakes and be physical. This brand of basketball isn't the flashiest, but it has produced consistent results. Those results include MAC championships and NCAA tournament appearances in 2004 and 2014.

And in 2015, for the first time in school history, the team hit 20 wins in three straight seasons. Hitting that 20-win mark isn't unusual for Hawkins though. He's been responsible for seven of WMU's eleven 20-win seasons. And his recruits keep on producing as well.

Be wary of Hawkins once he throws his jacket off while arguing with a referee. That's how you know he means business and he is going to beat the crap out of your team.

The 2015-2016 Schedule

Date Opponent Time (EST) Notes
7-Nov Kalamazoo College 2:00 Exhibition
14-Nov at DePaul 9:00
18-Nov San Diego 7:00
21-Nov at UNC-Wilmington 7:00
23-Nov Rochester College 7:00
26-Nov Stephen F. Austin 5:30 Challenge in the Music City (Nashville, TN)
27-Nov Liberty 3:30 Challenge in the Music City (Nashville, TN)
29-Nov Mercer 5:00 Challenge in the Music City (Nashville, TN)
3-Dec at James Madison 7:00
7-Dec Northeastern 7:00
12-Dec Marygrove 4:30
22-Dec IPFW 7:00
30-Dec at Vanderbilt 9:00 SEC Network
2-Jan Jacksonville 1:00
5-Jan Kent State 7:00
8-Jan at Akron TBA
12-Jan Ball State 7:00
16-Jan Northern Illinois 7:00
19-Jan at Ohio 7:00
23-Jan Buffalo 4:30
26-Jan Bowling Green 7:00
30-Jan Eastern Michigan 2:00
2-Feb at Toledo 7:00
6-Feb at Ball State 2:00
9-Feb Miami 7:00
13-Feb at Bowling Green 2:00
16-Feb at Kent State 7:00
20-Feb Central Michigan 2:00
23-Feb at Eastern Michigan 7:00
27-Feb at Northern Illinois 4:30
1-Mar Toledo 7:00
4-Mar at Central Michigan 7:00

Without question, the biggest non-conference challenge for the Broncos this year is a trip to #18 Vanderbilt on December 30. It's always fun to try to take down a big dog, and winning a game like that would help with seeding if the Broncos can take the MAC bid to the big dance.

I'm also very interested in the games against San Diego and Northeastern. These are teams the Broncos played last year, and seeing how we do against familiar competition is a good measuring stick for our progress as a program. WMU lost to Northeastern last year, and interestingly played San Diego twice, splitting the series.

I'm not going to get too much into trying to dissect our MAC slate of games because, frankly, January is very far away and preseason predictions are normally garbage. We do finish out the year in Mt. Pleasant though - and it wouldn't be a shock if that game had some relevance to conference tournament seeding.

The Tava injury

Real bad news for the Broncos here. Western has lost forward Connar Tava to a broken foot and there's no time table for return. He's the team's highest scoring returning player, is incredibly solid on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, and is the undisputed leader of the team coming into the 2015-16 campaign.

To say a wrench has been thrown into the Broncos season is an understatement. Tava's got size, speed, and shooting ability - the type of guy who is the centerpiece of an offense. So now we have to ask how Hawkins thinks about replacing a guy like that. My first instinct is it will be be Tucker Haymond. Tucker has a lot of experience and can fill a similar offensive footprint to Tava. Defensively though, Haymond won't quite match the skill set of Tava.

Senior forward A.J. Avery will also help fill in for the missing role of Tava, particularly on that defensive side of the ball. Expect Avery and Haymond to assume the identity of Tava in the aggregate.

With Tava, a lot of MAC men's basketball observers would have said the Broncos could make a run at the division title. Without him, people will probably retract that. But that's why we play the game. It's not the first time Hawkins has had to coach around adversity.

Who takes the place of the guards?

I mentioned earlier that we lost both David Brown and Austin Richie to graduation this year. These two were a dynamic combo over the years for the Broncos with prolific stats, and it's not going to be easy to replace them. So who best fills these shoes for the Broncos?

Thomas Wilder is the first obvious choice. As a freshman, Wilder was an athletic and confident guard, not afraid to drive from the perimeter, and not afraid to shoot. His performance last year is enough for significant playing time, if not the outright starting gig. Long term, I think he has greater potential for offensive output than Richie, let's just hope he avoids a sophomore slump.

Based on his size, we'll see if Wilder takes up the point guard mantle. There are a several guard/forward hybrids for WMU who could fill a #2 spot. Tucker Haymond might see some time at that position. He certainly has the credibility as an offensive producer after last season. Like I said though, after the Tava injury, he might be forced to focus more on his forward-centric duties.

It could also be time for senior guard Taylor Perry to step into the spotlight. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, Perry would be an imposing shooting guard. He didn't average a whole lot of minutes last season, but four years of experience could prove vitally important. Senior guard Jared Klein might also get in the mix.

Lest we forget the Broncos also have four freshman guards who will be jockeying for playing time. Josh Davis (Detroit), Joeviair Kennedy (Muskegon, MI), Bryce Moore (Indianapolis), and Ryan Wade (Laingsburg, MI) have all joined. We'll see what Hawkins does with the new guys. Does somebody stand out like Wilder did last year? Or do we wait a year or two for these guys to develop?

Keep an eye out on these three Broncos

Drake LaMont, C: The sophomore center gained a lot of experience his freshman year, and you could see his confidence grow as the season progressed. In two games he led the team in scoring, and he was second on the team in total rebounds (after Tava). If his offensive skills keep growing, you're looking at the starting center for Western for several years to come.

Khadim Dieng, C: Our conversations keep coming back to Tava, but that just makes sense for this Western team. Dieng, also a sophomore center, might also play a pivotal role with Tava's injury. Expect Dieng to be an important player off the bench when the Broncos need a defensive boost.

Kellen McCormick, F: McCormick was a streaky offensive producer over last season, but when he was hot, you could see there might be a star in the making.  If he can get consistent on offense, and with greater potential for court time, don't be surprised to see Kellen lead the Broncos in scoring for a few games this year.