Western Michigan's basketball team lost a significant number of contributors from 2011-12 this offseason, with a graduating class of five seniors as well as the transfer of leading rebounder Matt Stainbrook. After a surprising 14-20 season, though, it may be fitting that the Broncos get somewhat of a fresh start for next year. For better or worse, much of the success and failure in 2012-13 will rest on the shoulders of a seven man recruiting class that may be Steve Hawkins' best yet.
The class spans all positions and includes talent from both West and East Michigan along with three players from the Chicago area.
The first to commit to Hawkins and the Broncos was Jared Klein, a 6-foot-1, 175 pound point guard from nearby Otsego, Mich. who Hawkins praises for his floor vision and improving three point shot. Hawkins was worried that Klein's shooting may not be good enough to open up the rest of his game, but is pleased that his three point shot has improved over the past year. Klein earned Associated Press Class B first-team all-state honors for his senior season, as he averaged 21.7 points per game this season along with 3.1 assists in leading Otsego to a 21-4 record and district championship. Klein's opportunity to play may come early, with Mike Douglas' graduation and a dearth of natural point guards on the roster.
The current players on WMU's team were very active in Klein's recruitment, as he played with the team often in the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school. Hawkins explained that the players were very impressed with Klein's ability at point guard.
"I'm not exaggerating, probably 75 to 80 percent of the time our own players were picking him up before they picked up Mikey [Douglas]," Hawkins said.
Also joining the Broncos at guard will be Charles Harris, a two-guard out of Lake Forest, Ill. Harris missed his senior season with a torn ACL, but his rehab is going well and he should be full strength by the time he arrives on campus. Hawkins described the 6-foot-4, 180 pound Harris as a "flat-out athlete", impressed with his defensive ability and above the rim style.
Harris was quite highly recruited as a football player, which is something that Hawkins loves. Speaking of "turning the court into a football field", Hawkins said that players with a background in football bring the physicality that WMU preaches.
"He was basically going to go to Notre Dame as a wide receiver, or come to us to play basketball," Hawkins said. "Everybody thought he was going to play football because of the level he was being recruited at. Coach [Larry] Farmer did a great job of staying in touch with his family and his AAU coach."
A trio of recruits come in at the small forward spot, including Taylor Perry of Rochester, Mich. Perry is a slashing wing with impressive athleticism who averaged 21.5 points per game for the 20-2 district champion Rochester Falcons. Hawkins posited that Perry could be a replacement of sorts for outgoing Demetrius Ward, and said that he was very happy that Perry showed the first interest in WMU rather than the other way around.
"Taylor really liked us right away, and that goes a long way for me," Hawkins said.
A.J. Avery will also come in from St. Rita High School in Chicago to compete at the three spot, and though he has missed his senior season with a wrist injury, Hawkins says he is making good progress there. Avery has grown to about 6-foot-7, and has said he is willing to bring the physical element to the court as Hawkins asks. Hawkins compares him to a certain player that finished his eligibility in 2012.
"Avery would be the closest thing to Flenard [Whitfield], an athletic four man. At 6'6", 6'7", he's mean like Flenard is, a physical guy," Hawkins said.
The final wing coming in is Connar Tava, who had a breakout senior year for De La Salle High School in Warren, Mich. Tava averaged 20.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in 2011-12. Hawkins is most impressed by his physical build, saying the 6-foot-5, 230 pounder looks nothing like a high school senior. Tava's versatility could help him earn early playing time, as he is capable of playing multiple positions.
"His natural position might be a three, because he's built like one, but because of his strength he could probably play some four, and yet he'll also pull down a rebound and take the ball up the floor himself," Hawkins said.
Tava also has a bit of a football background, as he started playing varsity football in 2011 as a tight end. Hawkins said that Michigan and Michigan State started to come after Tava hard to enroll as a preferred walk-on for their football teams, but Tava turned them down to pursue basketball at WMU.
Two big men will join the Broncos as part of the class, including 6-foot-8 Pontiac, Mich. product Kellen McCormick, one of WMU's more highly recruited gets. McCormick stands at 6-foot-8 and Hawkins describes him as a "skilled big man", capable of shooting from the outside as well as playing with his back to the basket. His interest included offers from Miami (Ohio), Oakland, and Toledo.
McCormick played for ACB/Bank Hoops on the AAU circuit, a program that Hawkins has a long-term relationship with. While Hawkins says the 200 pound McCormick will have to put on weight, the opportunity is there for him to see the floor next year with Stainbrook's departure.
Darius Paul, from Warren High School in Gurnee, Ill., has perhaps the most interesting recruitment story of any of the seven joining WMU. Hawkins indicated that Paul was the most highly recruited player that WMU landed, drawing interest from a number of Big Ten programs. Paul has grown to about 6-foot-9, and is another skilled big like McCormick.
"Darius is probably the guy that would be recognized as having the most upside. He's 6'9", 6'10", but he's got a wingspan that's a lot longer than that," Hawkins said. "He's a skilled guy as well. Very, very good passer, and he can step all the way out to the three point line and shoot."
As for his recruitment, Paul's mother was particularly involved in the process and believed that Darius was a high major recruit, telling mid-majors to stop calling. Hawkins said that most did indeed stop, but assistant coach Larry Farmer had a background with the family and kept in touch, and the Broncos were eventually rewarded.
Hawkins and the staff were frank with the Pauls, telling them that Darius sometimes did not give full effort on the court and that the way WMU's program is run could change that. This struck a chord with his parents, and combined with AAU teammate Charles Harris' commitment earlier in the year, Paul began to seriously consider Western Michigan. Hawkins explains how the Broncos ultimately landed Paul.
"Charles Harris, who was an AAU teammate of his, committed, and when Darius came here on an unofficial visit for Breakfast with the Broncos, we thought that was a great sign. We just assumed they wanted to check it out in case the major interest didn't pan out, but at the end of the event, he said he wanted to commit, and quite honestly we were shocked," Hawkins said.
Darius' brother is Brandon Paul, a former four star Rivals.com recruit now starring at Illinois.