The Western Michigan men's basketball team found out this season what many already knew: repeating as champions in the MAC is nearly impossible. Such a feat hasn't happened in over a decade.
Kent State was the last to do it in the seasons spanning 2001-2002. David Brown, the sharpshooting guard and former All-MAC first team selection returned for a sixth and final season granted by the NCAA, and if his swan song season resembled his top scoring predecessor from 2013-2014, the Broncos would be obvious contenders for the MAC crown once again. WMU entered the season with presumably more answers than questions as they returned four starters, including Brown, from last year's NCAA tournament team. The burning question: How would WMU replace Shayne Whittington's presence in the middle? Despite losing Whittington to the NBA, the Broncos looked poised to capture a second championship in as many years on the collective backs of Brown, Connar Tava, Tucker Haymond and Austin Richie.
With all the pieces seemingly in place for 2014-2015, it was a fair expectation that the Broncos could compete for another championship. WMU won 20 games for the second year in a row showing flashes of potential by handling Buffalo at home, snatching late season wins over Kent State and Central Michigan and David Brown going all David Brown on the Ohio Bobcats in the first round of the MAC Tournament en route to yet another All-MAC selection. But these were the all too few peaks in a season filled with as many valleys. The MAC was a parity driven league as evidenced by the quantity of losses at the very top. Even the Buffalo Bulls, the trendy NCAA upset pick of the year and MAC champion, lost six games in the league that finished 10th in overall RPI. WMU navigated such parity late in the season just a year ago, but the Broncos faded slowly from MAC west title consideration in 2015 as it faltered in the toughest part of its campaign - a string of games featuring, in order, Akron, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, and Bowling Green - managing only a single win in that span. So while the college basketball season comes to a close in Indianapolis, we close the book on the Western Michigan men's basketball season and examine why the rafters at University Arena will not be gaining another NCAA tournament banner.
Replacing Whittington was tough
The Broncos simply weren't good enough on defense this year in Whittington's absence. One could think that his departure left a rebounding void unable to be filled, but rather his absence allowed opposing teams to be better inside the arc. The rebounding wasn't an issue at least on paper as the Broncos pulled in just over 50 more boards - giving up 52 fewer offensive boards than the year before - but the opposition shot slightly greater than 50% inside the three point line without the NBA bound Whittington to alter shots. The newest member of the Indiana Pacers left some big shoes to fill; in walk Drake Lamont to the rescue. The freshman from Plantation, Florida was a big piece of the Broncos successes this season but was never quite the consistent threat despite late season double figures against directional Michigan rivals. Lamont can really play, but will need some development to handle some of the bigger, more athletic front courts the Broncos struggled with this season.
The opposition terrorized WMU from behind the arc
Opposing teams shot 35.3% from behind the three point line against the Broncos this season, which was one of the worst defensive rates in the country. The three point defense, or lack thereof, was never more evident than in the final two games of the season. Akron dispatched the Broncos behind 12-of-29 shooting from behind the arc while the Cleveland State Vikings shot at a 52% clip - making 13 three pointers. The proficiency of opposing teams from three compounded with increased efficiency inside was a deadly cocktail that spelled doom for the Broncos' chances of repeating.
Injury and illness
The four returning starters that were supposed to propel the Broncos to new heights never stayed healthy long enough to gain a rhythm. WMU started 4-1 before entering that horrid stretch mentioned earlier. Part of that four game win streak that led to that start? Austin Richie. Richie scored in double figures in each of the four wins and seemed as though he was shaping up to be a dark horse candidate for team MVP. Richie suffered what was at the time an undisclosed injury and missed the entirety of that gruesome stretch of games that handed WMU five of its eight conference losses. Things very well could have been different had the Broncos retained for that stretch a player in Richie that was averaging just over 12 points per game. Tucker Haymond missed some time late in the season with actual sickness, losing out on four games down the stretch. Ultimately the Broncos could never get the momentum required to make a championship run.
The kid can play
Western Michigan may have returned four starters, but they found another piece from off of their bench in 2014-2015. Thomas Wilder turned some heads this year. His late season accomplishments were enough to land the point guard from Montgomery, Illinois on the MAC All-Freshman team. If there is a silver lining to the Richie injury it is Wilder finding a larger volume of minutes in his absence, furthering along the development of the smooth, crafty guard. Wilder's coming out party was on February 21 where he dropped a 34-point explosion on the Toledo Rockets. Despite the loss, the MAC took notice as the budding star solidified himself in the conversation as one of the best young players in the conference. Wilder scored in double figures in five of the Broncos' final eight contests despite accomplishing the same feat only three times in the previous 26. Wilder's development as a prolific scorer will be interesting to watch as the Broncos move into the future.
The future is (still) bright
David Brown will not be in brown and gold next season, at least not as a player, which is weird since he has been around for over half a decade in a Bronco uniform. His leadership and 15.5 points per game will be missed. You don't replace players like Brown, you remember the greatness and move on to the next superstar. Just as Brown was not David Kool, the next Bronco star will not be Brown. While Wilder appears to be his heir apparent, the next star may not have even set foot on campus yet. The WMU basketball program has not hit its ceiling, and though it may feel as though they took a step back this season, the Broncos return talented freshman and a fearless leader in Connar Tava and will feature two seven footers on the roster next season. Never fear Bronco fans, the memory of this season may leave behind a sour taste, but Steve Hawkins, the jacket tossing dean of the MAC, returns with a team that is talented as ever, and will have the Broncos right in the thick of things again next year. The time has come where the WMU basketball program carries with it expectations. Expectations to win and consistently compete for championships is the new norm. Bronco fans should expect they won't be left waiting another decade for a new MAC title.