Team preview: Western Michigan

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Western Michigan has a tradition in ice hockey, but over the last four seasons it has become pretty cool to be a Bronco basketball fan at The Zoo.

Winners of 80 games the last four seasons, WMU was one win shy of a three-peat as MAC West Division champions in 2006. Now the Broncos have the best young team in the league, with no seniors, a legit MAC Player-of-the-Year candidate in junior center Joe Reitz, and a heralded newcomer, Michigan's Mr. Basketball David Kool.

Renowned for his trust-building approach, fourth-year coach Steve Hawkins is at the controls, after being pursued by San Francisco (2004) and DePaul (2005) the last couple of years. Hawkins came to Western with head coach Robert McCullum in 2000. After four seasons, McCullum left for USF, and Hawkins guided the 2003-04 Broncos to a 26-5 mark, a MAC championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. Formerly the head coach at Quincy University for nine years (1992-2000), Hawkins says the goals at Western Michigan "are higher than 10 feet."

The 2005-06 season unfolded the way Hawkins anticipated it would. Having graduated its two top scorers (Ben Reed, Levi Rost), and then losing two of its better outside shooters before the start of the season (Silver Laku, Patrick Alston), Western fell to 4-11 after a 15-point loss at Kent State (Jan. 17). The five-game win streak that followed included a double-overtime win at Central Michigan and fueled the Broncos' climb.

"I felt like we were going to take some lumps early and that maybe we could play our way into contention," Hawkins said. "Seventy percent of our minutes were played by freshmen and sophomores, but it was probably my most rewarding year of coaching because of how we started and then how we finished."

Western won 10-of-15 games heading into the MAC quarterfinals in Cleveland. One of the losses was to Northern Illinois in Kalamazoo for the MAC West title. But, Western, which had ended Akron's season the year before largely on rebounding dominance, saw the tables turned in a 72-57 tournament loss.

Ultimately, it was a glaring lack of perimeter shooting and too much Akron (three double-digit losses) that spelled the end to Western's season. Laku (2.6 ppg), a 6-2 junior guard, who became a medical red-shirt (right shoulder), and Alston, a junior college recruit, were unavailable for medical reasons. The incoming freshmen were unable to pick up the slack.

"We just couldn't shoot the ball and it was our Achilles heel all year long," Hawkins said.

The Broncos were last in the league in field-goal percentage (.408) and three-point percentage (.299) and next to last in free-throw percentage (.664). MAC leader Akron made twice as many three-point baskets as Western (264-132).

The two key losses from last year's club are point guard Brian Snider (11.0 ppg, 5.1 apg, 2.0 spg) and wing player Stane's Bufford (9.7 ppg). Wes deVries (1.9 ppg), a 6-9 post, left the team for academic reasons. Seldom-used Kristof Kendrick, a 6-5 guard, transferred to IUPUI.

The Broncos played six games in Rome and Athens during mid-May and practiced 10 days before leaving.

"It is a great bonding time," Hawkins said. "But it forces you to play a different style of ball and puts you in some adverse situations. It gives you a reference point to draw from. Your players learn how to adjust. Then when you factor in 10 days of practice and the educational benefit, I am just a huge believer in these trips."