Central Michigan travels to Kalamazoo on Saturday for an afternoon date with arch rival Western Michigan. A win for the Chippewas boosts their chances of beginning the MAC Tournament in Cleveland instead of Mount Pleasant, where for WMU the goal is to start the tournament journey at home in the first round. They'll have to slow down a CMU team fresh off a huge win over the Toledo Rockets at McGuirk arena that placed them in a four way, conference-wide, tie at 7-6. WMU would also be a part of that 7-6 tie were it not for three overtime losses to Kent State (twice) and Ball State.
Sweet home Kalamazoo
Speaking of playing at home, the Broncos are a drastically different team within the confines of University Arena than they are away. Last Saturday's win over Bowling Green marked WMU's first road win of the season and pushed them to 1-5 in conference in that category. A brief look at the numbers implies this isn't simply a fluke. WMU scores 77 points per game at home, which is a full 10 per game more than away from Kalamazoo. The likely culprit is three point shooting, as the Brown and Gold hit just over 42 percent of their shots from downtown at home compared to just 30 percent on the road. The difference in three point defense is the same, with MAC teams visiting Kalamazoo shooting 31.5 percent from three compared to around 43 percent when WMU is the visitor.
It could be a different story when "3MU" comes to town, though they haven't quite lived up to the nickname this season, especially on the road where they shoot just 32 percent from behind the arc. The road woes for the Chips are also well documented with four of their six losses coming away from McGuirk, and Kalamazoo has been anything but an easy place to play despite the home team's poor record. The likes of Northern Illinois, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan have all left University Arena this season having been dealt double digit losses.
Stars in the back court
Saturday's game is loaded with stars at the guard position. Leading the way are CMU's Chris Fowler and WMU's Thomas Wilder. Wilder is the MAC leader in points per game in conference play with 20.8 and is a major, if not the only, reason the Broncos don't find their current situation much, much worse. Fowler doesn't light up the scoreboard as much, though 15.8 points per game is nothing to scoff at, however he is third overall in the MAC in assists. Fowler trails only teammate Rayshawn Simmons and Ohio's Jaaron Simmons in that category, making him one of the more complete guards in the conference. Central Michigan's leading scorer in MAC play is Braylon Rayson whose 26 points last time out lifted the Chippewas over Toledo.
CMU's Simmons has been feast or famine as of late scoring the basketball, posting point totals of 14, 7, 22 and 7 in the Chippewas' previous four contests, but hasn't struggled finding teammates. WMU has a streaky second option as well in Tucker Haymond, whose recent struggles shooting the ball from distance have severely diminished his productivity. However Haymond, like Simmons, has more than enough potential to have a noticeable impact on the game.
Trying to find a balance
Supporting casts, particularly in the front court, will go a long way towards determining which team is victorious in Saturday's rivalry game. The Chippewas have had much more success than the Broncos in this category, led by Simmons as the third player averaging in double figures along with Rayson and Fowler. Luke Meyer and the ever reliable John Simons bring a well rounded attack to the CMU front court with Josh Kozinski creating production in the back court off the bench. While Central Michigan has a plethora of offensive options, the story for WMU in 2016 has been the search for a third option behind Wilder and the now struggling Haymond. To date, Anthony Avery Jr. is the third leading scorer on the team in conference play at 7.5 points per game, followed closely by Drake Lamont, but neither have been the answer to WMU's struggles scoring the basketball.
The Chippewas and Broncos tip off at 2 p.m Saturday at University Arena in Kalamazoo. The game can be streamed on ESPN3. A win for Central Michigan moves them into a potential tie for first place in the division, while a win for WMU moves them to 2-0 in the Michigan MAC Trophy standings.