The Western Michigan men's basketball team got back on the court for the first time since the Europe trip. The team practiced at nearby Kalamazoo College for two of their three practices over the weekend due to scheduling conflicts with the Western Michigan volleyball team.
"I have a real soft spot for this place," said head coach Steve Hawkins as he nostalgically looked around the Anderson Athletic Center, whose capacity holds roughly 2,000 people.
"You look around and see the oldest collegiate conference. To me, this is basketball in its purest form."
"I do hope the day comes that we have our own practice facility, but it's a great thing to be able to just come across the street," said Hawkins. "We've always had a great relationship with K College."
Assistant Coach Clayton Bates flawlessly fit right back in with the Bronco basketball team as he led drills with the big men. He hasn't seemed to miss a step, and there was a certain buzz in the arena with his return, as a few Fast Break Club members were present and welcomed him back to Kalamazoo.
The Broncos took the floor together Friday night for the first time since Sunday, August 26th in Monaco, focusing squarely on defense, communication, and basic fundamentals. Both the coaching staff and the players are already noticing a huge advantage from having an extra ten practices and four games earlier in the year to prepare for the 2012-2013 season.
"So much of this has been review," explained Hawkins.
On Saturday's morning practice back at University Arena, the Broncos spent their time on offensive drills and focused on carrying over defensive fundamentals from the day before.
"The first practice went great," said freshman point guard Jared Klein. "Everybody's been looking forward to it, so it was fun."
"The ten practices we had before Europe really helped us out a lot. We feel ahead right now," explained Klein.
"[The Europe trip] was huge," said Hawkins.
"The first day of practice is always kind of a let-down. That might be the best way to put it because everyone gets excited for the first day of practice. You're anxious to get out there but when you get there, there's a lot of teaching and correcting."
"Well tonight we were able to get to more because there's a lot of review being done. We were able to get so much done in preparation for Europe. Tonight was back to the basics and a lot of it was review of what we had already put in."
The Broncos return upperclassmen David Brown, Nate Hutcheson, Dan Loney, Brandon Pokley, Shayne Whittington, and walk-on Nick Stapert. The sophomore class is rounded out by Hayden Hoerdemann, Austin Richie, and walk-on Tim Brennan. Western Michigan welcomes eight new freshmen to the roster; A.J. Avery, Charles Harris, Jared Klein, Kellen McCormick, Darius Paul, Taylor Perry, Connor Tava, and local walk-on product Von Washington Jr.
The team is still relatively fresh off a ten-day trip to Europe this past August where the Broncos went 2-2. Nearly every player received significant playing time throughout the trip as the Western Michigan coaching staff intentionally planned to mix things up and try different combinations on the floor. The players also got to experience Europe culturally, as much of their time off the basketball court was spent sightseeing and spending a significant amount of time bonding with teammates.
"Just getting to know everybody on the trip and working with them on the court, and everything that they each bring to the table," said Connor Tava, the Macomb, Michigan native.
"We're with each other 24 hours a day, so it's helped our team chemistry get a lot better."
"I think that it really just helped us get broken in," said Kellen McCormick in reference to the ten extra days of practice back in August.
"I think we learned what the coaches expect from us and we kind of got a head start on the offense and the defensive fundamentals."
Speaking about the actual playing experience itself, McCormick said, "Playing against European professionals, it's another step up. The best way to get better is by playing better competition. That's how you learn. You just get thrown into a situation like that, and you have to learn."
Freshman Charles Harris continues to participate fully in non-contact drills. However, he's still not quite at one hundred percent as he continues to battle a nagging knee injury.
"I was kind of limited but it felt good to get out there with the team," said Harris. "I'm not 100% but I'm getting there."
Harris is roughly one and a half to two weeks out from the training staff letting him loose.
Redshirt junior David Brown is finally off crutches and running around lightly, however he's still several weeks out from participating in team drills.
The Broncos open the exhibition schedule against neighboring Kalamazoo College at University Arena on Thursday, November 1st. Their regular season schedule officially starts on the road against Cornell in Ithaca, New York on Saturday, November 10th.