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February 28, 2012

Broncos look to keep West Division hopes alive

Western Michigan basketball's hope for a fourth MAC West title in five years is hanging by a thread, but the Broncos could find themselves back in the race with a strong performance Wednesday evening against division-leading Eastern Michigan. WMU will celebrate the careers of five seniors on the night. Along with the publicized Detroit trio of Mike Douglas, Demetrius Ward, and Flenard Whitfield, forwards Muhammed Conteh and Caleb Dean will finish their regular season University Arena careers.

The Broncos (12-17, 6-8 Mid-American Conference) have struggled through a disappointing season marred by injuries along with often subpar play, and the seniors have been maligned by many for providing inadequate leadership. While the criticism is not without merit, these seniors, particularly Douglas, Ward, and Whitfield, still have an opportunity to go out with a bang. Time may be running out, but two wins against in-state rivals EMU and Central Michigan to end the season would give the Broncos much-needed momentum going into the MAC tournament. This tournament will be the swan song for the current seniors, and it is their final chance to leave a lasting stamp on the program.

Wednesday night's contest could prove critical in seeding for the conference tournament, and while Eastern Michigan (13-16, 8-6) currently sits alone atop the West Division, the Eagles are not a terribly imposing opponent. Much of EMU's success has come from their style, rather than their talent. First year head coach Rob Murphy spent the previous eight years as a Syracuse assistant, and Jim Boeheim clearly had a major influence on his coaching style, as Eastern Michigan now runs a Syracuse-style 2-3 zone that has confounded much of the MAC in 2011-12. Combined with a molasses-slow pace on offense, the zone has allowed for many close, low scoring games. In fact, EMU has both scored and allowed the fewest points per game in conference play, with 53.3 and 58.4 respectively. WMU fans may remember a 62-59 overtime loss to Eastern earlier this year, and that is a typical result for this club.

Eastern is led by senior guard Darrell Lampley with 13.3 points per contest, though Lampley shoots only 37.6% from the floor. As a team, the Eagles rank 11th in the MAC in shooting at 37.8%, and 2nd in field goal defense at 40.7%. The pattern is not hard to identify. Western's advantages should be on the glass along with outside shooting against the zone defense if they are able to establish good ball movement in the halfcourt offense. If WMU can recapture the shooting touch that allowed them to sink 13 threes against Ball State at University Arena, they may be able to extend the zone and have success.

Despite the loss earlier this year, WMU head coach Steve Hawkins has had great success against Eastern in his career, posting a 16-3 record including a 10-0 mark at home. Playing at home with plenty of motivation for the seniors, the success should continue.

Prediction

Western Michigan 53, Eastern Michigan 46. WMU won't succeed in quickening the pace very much, which would be the easiest way to force Eastern out of their comfort zone. The Broncos aren't badly built for a slugfest either, though, with their physicality and rebounding. This game stays close and ugly, but WMU pulls it out.


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