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Western Michigan should grow from non-conference challenges

December 9, 2014 Columns No Comments

BOSTON – Non-conference play is a time to figure things out. It’s a time to get better. And while many teams certainly want to win games, whether to rack up quality wins for NCAA Tournament at-large candidacy or gain confidence, for a team like Western Michigan, getting better is paramount. The Broncos are in a challenging stretch of trying to do a little of both, with the latest challenge being an 81-69 setback at Northeastern on Saturday.

The Broncos have an experienced group overall, though they are younger in the frontcourt. They are playing a challenging slate, with Saturday’s game being the fifth of seven in a row away from home. Adding to the challenge is the actual travel involved, as this is mixed in with several games in California. They began this stretch at San Diego, then played three in Anaheim as part of the Wooden Legacy. They lost the first two, but regrouped to finish fifth with a 2-1 mark in Anaheim.

That kind of ability to overcome adversity will serve them well. They trailed wire to wire at Northeastern, and after about a week off, they head back to California to play at Pacific and then come closer to home at Northwestern, both of which pose big challenges.

Western Michigan didn’t go away easily against the Huskies. Down 67-51, they rallied using one of their specialties, which is three-point shooting, especially from Austin Richie, who is shooting just over 60 percent from behind the arc on the season. Richie and Tucker Haymond came alive late, especially the former, and in the end they had four players score in double figures. But offense wasn’t the problem; the Huskies shot over 46 percent and out-rebounded them 40-26.

“We were just a step slow all night long,” said head coach Steve Hawkins.

Opponents are shooting over 45 percent from the field on the season against the Broncos, so that along with their prowess shooting the ball means it’s clear where they have to improve. They shoot about 49 percent from the field, including over 42 percent from long range. A contributing factor is youth up front, as Drake LaMont and Haymond, two of the starters, are underclassmen. LaMont, a freshman, struggled with foul trouble on Saturday and played just seven minutes.

That doesn’t mean there are no adjustments to make offensively. One of the holdovers is last year’s MAC scoring champion, David Brown, who was granted a sixth season of eligibility after missing most of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. He’s not scoring at the clip he was last season, nor is he taking as many shots (his overall shooting percentage is up, though his three-point percentage is down), and he’s much better with assists and turnovers. Hawkins says he’s not playing differently, but he is adjusting to what’s out there.

“Teams are taking what he does away more,” said Hawkins. “I think the scouting report begins with him.”

In the long run, getting other players better will help. It will add defensive attention to them, thus freeing him up for more scoring chances. As shooters like Richie continue to make shots, it should help Brown and ultimately the team. Learning to take what the defense gives you has a lot of value.

“We’ve got to have everybody else score so we can get some of the focus back on David,” Hawkins added.

Saturday’s game was one that you sense Hawkins would rather not have played. Both teams needed a game when September rolled around, and they agreed on this series with the Huskies playing in Kalamazoo next year. Hawkins said it was all about the opponent as to why he would rather not have played it, giving Northeastern a world of respect in saying so, but it is something they can gain from. They can see areas for improvement, as well as how to improve, especially from the point where they rallied to make it a ballgame. This won’t go down as a bad loss, though they won’t be in the running for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid anyway.

Last year, Toledo got much of the MAC accolades during the non-conference play, and rightly so. The Broncos lost three straight, all on the road, in non-conference play, the regrouped and opened up MAC play by beating Toledo. They were quietly contending all along, then ended up being the last team standing.

This time around, they have a good record, are developing, and in the end this road stretch will help them. Their MAC slate is road-heavy at first as well, but they will finish the regular season with five of the last seven games in Kalamazoo, so it’s all set up for them to once again be under the radar until the end. The non-conference slate looks ready to serve its purpose of getting better and figuring some things out for this team.

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