As February arrives in Kalamazoo, usually it’s the Western Michigan University men’s hockey team that is responsible for all of the buzz cooking up around campus. Once again they are thriving, but this year they have some company.
Bronco students and fans have been treated to an exciting and somewhat unexpected winter season in sports thus far thanks to the play of a young and tireless men’s basketball squad that is on the cusp of breaking its longest winning streak in a season since 2005.
The newfound success of men’s basketball, added to the once-again superb play of hockey, has made this winter season of sports one of the most fun and memorable in recent memory not only for the fans, but for the players and coaches as well.
Just ask WMU men’s basketball coach Steve Hawkins.
“It’s great. It’s been the bomb,” Hawkins said.
“We certainly go through it like it’s competition. It’s always great when all the teams do well. That’s a big thing right now as there are a lot of good things going on at Western and certainly in the Athletic Department there’s a lot of excitement right now, and we’re very happy to be a part of that. [We’re] very happy to be a part of the pride that’s taking place when two seasons are going on currently.”
WMU head hockey coach Andy Murray shared some of the same thoughts.
“I’m excited of every game that’s going on whether it’s softball, or baseball, or football or whatever,” Murray said.
“I love going to the basketball games and seeing a young team playing as well as its playing right now. I think that certainly inspires our team and pushes our guys to even try to be better. You have two of your major teams on campus that are having a real good year and that creates a lot of positive energy.”
Hawkins appreciates all the support the fans have shown and he credits them as a big reason for the team’s current roll. The men’s basketball team has seven straight victories.
“The big difference for us is when the students show up,” Hawkins said.
“When you’re winning obviously it helps. There’s no doubt with the last couple of games that the student section has been a lot more full, a lot more active and that’s wonderful for us because they make a difference. They truly make a difference to us and to the other team too. If it’s a hostile atmosphere and a rowdy atmosphere for an opponent to walk in to it can be intimidating. That’s something that we’ve had here.”
WMU Hockey (17-6-5, 13-4-3 CCHA) has had a huge following of fans the last few years and this year is no different. The team is currently ranked No. 6 in the nation and is positioned for another strong run at a national championship.
The Broncos have gotten solid contributions across the board.
Five players have earned weekly rewards. Sophomore Garrett Haar, junior Dan DeKeyser, and junior Dennis Brown all were named Gladiator Defenseman of the Week once. Freshman Colton Hargrove earned CCHA Gongshow Rookie of the Week honors twice, and freshman Kenney Morrison won the same award once.
As hockey gears up for a big showdown this Friday and Saturday at home against No. 3 ranked Miami (Ohio), Murray sounded encouraged about the way his team has played so far, but he insisted there is only one thing on his mind going forward.
“Our focus is on winning,” Murray said.
“Our players, they’re really proud to represent this university and we talk about it a great deal. We’ve had a consistent season. We have a really tough game Friday night against Miami. The only thing I’m concerned about right now is about playoffs and beating Miami starting at 7:05 Friday night.”
As for WMU men’s basketball, their turnaround this year can be largely attributed to the stellar play of late by senior center Shayne Whittington and senior guard David Brown.
Brown, who returned earlier this year after suffering a serious knee injury that sidelined him for his junior season, is currently in the midst of playing his best basketball as a Bronco.
He has played a key reserve role off the bench and has given his team an obvious spark whenever he steps onto the floor. Just last night at home against a tough Kent State squad, he scored a career-high 22 points to help lead the Broncos to their seventh straight victory.
Whittington, who has won three Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week awards this season, has provided a dominant post presence since game one. He and fellow freshman starter Darius Paul have combined to form a powerful duo inside that opposing teams have learned to respect. Whittington recorded his seventh double-double of the year Wednesday night against Kent State, scoring 21 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
Both Brown and Whittington represent the make-up and identity of the team right now. It is a tough, relentless group that trusts one another and fights on every possession lasting to the sound of the buzzer.
The chemistry this team has built has been evident, and Hawkins could tell this team was on to something long before the first tip of the season.
“It started (when) we took a European trip this summer,” Hawkins said.
“It’s just a group of guys that like to play the game. They have a lot of fun playing basketball, and they really have a lot of fun playing the game with each other. They enjoy each other’s company on the bus, hotel trips are fun, and that’s always the case on every team. If you get a couple guys that click off and on, or a couple of guys that don’t like each other, it can cause some tension in the locker room, and this group has been tremendous. If somebody doesn’t play well on a given night, which happens, they’re not so selfish that they can hide their own performance. They’re happy that we won.”
It is a recipe that has bode well so far, but as great of a season as it has been for WMU hockey and men’s basketball, there is still unfinished business and more excitement to come.
So while WMU hockey and men’s basketball close their regular seasons and ready themselves for the playoffs, here’s to hoping this fun ride continues and lasts as long as both teams and the Bronco fans can take it.