Having advanced to the semifinal round of the SEC tournament before being eliminated on Saturday, the Vanderbilt Commodores received a 6-seed in the Phoenix Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Their first-round opponents are the 11th-seeded Western Michigan Broncos of the Mid-American Athletic Conference, coached by Steve Hawkins, who took over this year from Robert McCullum (who went to South Florida).
This will be the first-ever meeting between Vanderbilt and Western Michigan in men's basketball. The Commodores have rarely played opponents from the MAC-- their only previous encounters have been with Miami (3-1), Ohio (1-0), Toledo (1-0), and Bowling Green (2-0). The last MAC team Vandy played was Ohio (Dec. 19, 1987), a 93-77 win for the Commodores.
The Broncos had an overall record of 26-4 this season, their only non-conference loss coming at Detroit (64-43) in their second game. They defeated Southern California (83-65) and College of Charleston (83-78) at home (83-65) and won at UAB (69-62) and Arizona State (81-76). They also beat Fordham, Loyola (Illinois), Winthrop, and Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne.
The Broncos were the MAC regular season champion with a record of 15-3. Their only three conference losses came on the road at the hands of Kent State, Marshall, and Toledo, each of whom they defeated in the MAC tournament. Against conference opponents, they had an average scoring edge of 14.9 points per game.
A look at the team statistics for the season shows that the Broncos made 46.3% of their shots from the field, including 38% from behind the three-point line. They connected on 72% of their free throws and had an average advantage of six rebounds over their opponents. They had nine steals per game and 15.47 assists, both outstanding statistics.
Western Michigan's best player, and the MAC Player of the Year, is 6-8 senior Mike Williams (right, photo courtesy Western Michigan University). A transfer from Schoolcraft College, he averaged 13.6 ppg and 5.7 rebounds as a junior, and improved as a senior to 18.8 ppg and 7.2 rebounds. At 190 pounds, he is quite slender but very active and aggressive. His points come from close to the basket and he rarely shoots from outside.
Another Bronco, 6-3 junior Ben Reed, also made the all-conference first team. He is a powerfully-built wing player (225 lbs.) who scored 16.2 ppg, was third on the team in rebounds (4.8 per game), and is an excellent three-point shooter (46.5%, hitting an average of 2.5 per game). He runs his mouth a good deal on the court and sometimes gets under the skin of opponents.
The low post player is 6-7 senior Anthony Kann, a 245-pounder who was an honorable mention all-conference player (a total of only ten players being picked on the team). He is the third leading scorer at 12.8 ppg and, like Williams, averaged 7.2 rebounds.
The point guard is a big one, 6-6 sophomore Brian Snider (5.6 points per game), who had an outstanding assist/turnover ratio of 4.8/1.8. The other starter, 6-0 junior Ricky Willis (3.0 ppg) has unimpressive statistics, but he also plays the point and gives the team two ball-handlers in the starting lineup.
The three key reserves are 6-4 senior Reggie Berry, 6-7 junior Levi Rost, and 6-6 senior Bobby Madison. Berry (9.3 ppg) was recognized as the top sixth man in the conference, and is a good outside shooter (hitting 41.1% of his threes). Rost scored 7.0 ppg and is also a good three-point shooter (37.4%). Madison's main strength is rebounding (3.1 per game); he averaged 3.4 ppg.
Clearly, Western Michigan has much less size than Vanderbilt; but in the conference tournament championship game vs. Kent State, this didn't stop them from decisively out-rebounding the Golden Flashes and their 7-0 center. Williams, Kann, and Reed are all tough on the boards, and they get substantial help from Snider (3.9 rebounds per game), Madison, and Rost.
Western Michigan is one of the leading candidates in the 2004 NCAA to emerge as a "bracket buster." They are an experienced, smoothly-functioning team, as can be attested by anyone who saw the MAC tournament championship game. Having coached at Illinois State, when the Redbirds scored some upsets in the NCAA, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings certainly won't underestimate the Broncos. Probably the players, excited at the chance for the first time to play in the "big dance," will also be up for the game. Vanderbilt should win by 6-10 points, but Western Michigan is clearly not an opponent to be taken lightly.