Broncos vs. Cardinals

Western Michigan returns to Mid-American Conference road action at Ball State on Jan. 15. The Broncos are currently in the middle of a five-game stretch that sees the team leave Kalamazoo on just one occasion. Wednesday's contest pits the two programs selected in the preseason to finish on top of the West Divison in 2002-03. The Cardinals were picked to claim the title and the Broncos second in voting conducted by the league's media outlets.


Prior to WMU's back-to-back league losses to Marshall and Central Michigan, the Broncos were ranked among the nation's elite defensive units (allowing just 54 points per game). After allowing consecutive season highs in points to the Thundering Herd (66) and Chippewas (80), the team needed to rediscover the defensive effort that had carried the squad during the non-conference campaign. The Broncos did just that Saturday against Eastern Michigan, allowing the Eagles to net just 54 points, which had previously been set as the program's benchmark. Western Michigan allowed EMU to shoot just 41.9 percent (18-of-43) from the field for the afternoon and 2-of-10 from behind the 3-point line. WMU also forced a season-high 28 turnovers, thanks in large part to 16 steals. The Broncos have allowed just a pair of opponents (Detroit, Central Michigan) to total 20-or-more field goals in the past 10 games.


When EMU's Markus Austin drained a 3-pointer at the 15:51 mark of the second half, a comfortable 11-point Bronco halftime advantage was suddenly about to disappear. Following the media timeout, however, the Broncos responded at both ends of the court by scoring the game's next 10 points to end the threat. WMU forced four turnovers during the run and took advantage at the other end by converting on easy opportunities. Three of the baskets were layups, which included a pair of run outs by senior Terrance Slater. Eastern Michigan would get no closer than 10 points the rest of the way in WMU's 33-point victory.


Western Michigan's league-best scoring defense (56.7 points per game) is the collective result of a number of factors. The Broncos have done a good job of limiting opponent opportunities by forcing turnovers, more times than not the result of a theft. Along with scoring defense, WMU also leads the league in steals with 128 (9.85 spg.). WMU has posted double figures in thefts in six games this season, which includes a current streak of four straight. The team's 17 steals at IUPUI (12/30) is tied for the third-highest total in school history and the 16 recorded versus Eastern Michigan (1/11) is tied for the fourth-best effort. Senior guard Robby Collum leads the league in steals (2.77 spg.) and is among the nation's elite in that category as well. Junior forward Anthony Kann is third (2.00 spg.) in the MAC and classmate Mike Williams ranks 9th (1.64 spg.).


Mike Williams' hip injury, suffered at the tail end of practice on Dec. 26, kept him out of practice until Jan. 6. The junior forward may try to convince the coaches to keep him out of practice the rest of the season after posting standout games versus Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan. The Detroit, Mich., native averaged 20.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in the two games, which included his first career double-double (24 points, 11 rebounds vs. CMU). Williams shot 75 percent (18-of-24) from the field in 26 minutes of action per night.


The transition from the starting lineup to the bench had been going well for junior guard Reggie Berry. The Houston, Texas, native had discovered newfound success with his role as the squad's sixth man, posting double figures in points in four-straight games while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field. In the previous two games, however, Berry's shooting touch appears to have stayed on the bench as he went to check into the game. Against CMU and EMU, Berry combined to shoot 4-of-16 (25 percent) from the field and 2-of-12 (16 percent) from behind the 3-point line. He also had just three rebounds in 19.5 minutes per game.


Western Michigan will be featured in at least two games this season via the league's television package, which was released this week. WMU's games at Central Michigan (Feb. 10) and Bowling Green (Feb. 15) will be picked up throughout the Midwest for regional broadcasts. As a result, each game has been pushed back one hour from its original tip time. The contest against the Chippewas is now slated for 8 p.m. while the matchup versus the Falcons moves to 2 p.m. Both games can be found on FOX Ohio and FOX Detroit. If the Broncos want to have any more of their games on the air, the team must advance to at least the MAC Tournament Semi-finals, which will be carried by FOX Ohio.


While the Broncos have claimed nine victories in the opening 13 contests of the season, there are a few chinks in the armor. One of the more glaring areas of weakness is team free throw shooting, which heading into the Marshall (1/4) contest had not played a major role in the outcome of the game. Unfortunately for the Broncos, the Thundering Herd's success at the line and WMU's struggles were vital factors in the final score. Western Michigan converted on just 8-of-19 (42 percent) of its chances while MU connected on 82 percent (24-of-29) of its chances. In the previous two seasons, WMU has finished in the middle of the MAC in free throw shooting. This year, however, the Broncos are 11th among the 13 programs. The squad owns a season average of 65.0 percent (169-of-260), which only Eastern Michigan (64.6 percent) and Northern Illinois (60.5 percent) are unable to match.


WMU's 75-51 win at IUPUI on Dec. 30 marked the conclusion of the non-conference portion of its 2002-03 campaign, during which the Broncos posted an impressive 8-1 mark (Miami defeated WMU for team's other loss). The eight-straight victories came by an average of 16.6 points, with the only blemish being a 62-59 setback in the season opener versus Princeton. Western Michigan would have had its work cut out for it had it defeated the Tigers. The victory would have provided a matchup with then No. 7 ranked Oklahoma.


In the previous 11 games, Western Michigan has allowed just one opponent (Central Michigan) to collect more than 10 first-half field goals. As a result, opposing squads have managed to connect on just 31.6 percent (91-of-288) of their shot opportunities in the opening 20 minutes of play during that run. Each of the teams has attempted at least 18 shots prior to halftime, led by Detroit's 34 scoring chances. As a result of the team's first half defensive effort, the Broncos have outscored opponents 422-307 this season, which translates into an average halftime lead of nearly nine points (32.5-23.6)


Western Michigan didn't help its future scheduling efforts with its latest wins at Auburn and versus Virginia Tech, but the program did pick up two more important victories for the team as well as the league. The win over the Hokies gave the Broncos their third win of the season over a team from a "major" conference. WMU defeated Michigan (Big Ten) on the road on Nov. 30 and Dec. 17 (Auburn) picked up it's first win against a squad from the Southeastern Conference in over 20 years. With the team's 75-54 victory over VT on Dec. 21, the Broncos have now claimed five-straight games (three road games) versus teams from highly-ranked leagues. WMU defeated the Hokies 55-51 last season and also handed Michigan a loss in 2001-02.


Western Michigan's trip to Auburn introduced the team not only to warmer temperatures, but to a red-hot Tiger offensive attack as well. AU entered the contest with the Broncos in possession of the nation's most efficient scoring offense. Auburn was connecting on 55.4 percent of its shots and hadn't finished below 50 percent as a team in any of the it's first seven outings. Against the Broncos, however, the Tigers found its offensive prowess under constant pressure. Western Michigan held AU to 35.3 percent (18-of-51) for the game and 6-of-20 (30 percent) in the first half. Auburn entered the game averaging 81 points per outing, but finished the night with just 54 points, by far a season low (previous was 70 at Western Kentucky).


The coaching staff feels that if WMU can hold its opponents to below 60 points, a majority of the time the team will be able to come away with a victory. The Broncos held Miami to just 44 points (fewest since defeating Akron 50-42 in 2000-01) on Dec. 7, but were unable to come away with a victory in the 44-39 MAC-opening defeat. Western Michigan shot just 15-of-43 (34.9 percent) from the floor and 6.3 percent (1-of-16) from behind the 3-point line. The 39 points scored by the team is the fewest since the RedHawks claimed a 65-39 victory during the 1992-93 campaign. In 1989-90, Ball State notched a 65-38 win at University Arena to give the Broncos their lowest offensive output previous to the 1992-93 season.


Much like Bronco fans know that the sun will come up every morning, he or she can also sleep peacefully knowing that senior guard Robby Collum will be in the starting lineup. Collum's eight-rebound, eight-assist effort against Eastern Michigan marked his 69th-straight assignment in the starting lineup in 70 career appearances. The only game he hasn't started in his career is the only game he has ever missed -- Nov. 21, 2000 at Michigan. Collum suffered a head injury in the season opener versus Hampton and was kept out of the next contest with the Wolverines as a precaution.


The first half point total (15) against IUPUI is the lowest first half effort allowed by Western Michigan since rival Central Michigan managed just 15 points on Feb. 4, 1995. WMU jumped out to a 44-15 halftime lead and won the game going away 71-54.


Western Michigan inked three players to a National Letter of Intent during the early signing period, a pair of prep standouts and one junior college star. Andrew Hershberger (Goshen, Ind./Goshen HS), Mike Jefferson (Kansas City, Mo./Westport HS) and Levi Rost (St. Johns, Mich./Lansing CC) will join the Broncos for the 2003-04. Hershberger, a 6-7, 200-pounder, will begin his Bronco career in 2003-04 and have four years of eligibility. The No. 8 scorer (861 points) in Goshen High School history, Hershberger averaged 18.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game as a junior. He earned all-conference accolades for the second-straight season after shooting 52.8 percent from the floor and 83.9 percent from the charity stripe. He has started all of the 64 career games in which he has played at the varsity level, dating back to his freshman campaign. Jefferson, a 5-9, 170-pound point guard, helped guide Westport High School as a junior to its first state tournament appearance in 25 years. The team finished fourth in Class 4A in the postseason tourney, posting a 23-7 record en route to the final four appearance. He averaged 16.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 2001-02 while leading the city with 84 3-pointers made. His efforts earned him a spot on the Kansas City Star's All-Metro Team along with the all-district and all-state squads. Jefferson was also tabbed the program's most valuable player after finishing as the squad's leader in nearly every statistical category. Rost is a 6-7, 210-pounder who can play either forward position. His twin sister, Casey, was the 2001-02 Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year in her first season with the Broncos. An all-region selection as a freshman at Lansing Community College, Rost was named the Michigan Community College Athletic Association MVP after averaging 22.2 points, 3.8 assists and 3.8 steals per game. He concluded the season ranked 15th in the nation in scoring and seventh in 3-point field goal percentage (50.3 percent). Rost led the MCCAA in scoring and 3-point field goal percentage and was second in free throw percentage (83.3 percent). His field goal percentage of 54.8 was ninth-best in the league while he concluded the campaign fourth in both assists and steals among all players in the MCCAA.


WMU reached new levels of success on the basketball court and in the classroom during the 2001-02 season. While the Broncos were winning 17 games last year, the squad was also producing favorable results in classrooms throughout WMU's campus. The team's cumulative grade point average of 3.08 for the fall and winter semesters was by far the best effort by any of the 13 programs in the Mid-American Conference. "We are extremely proud of the commitment our players have to their respective academic achievement," head coach Robert McCullum said. "They continue to make sacrifices in order to distinguish themselves by successfully balancing athletics and academics." Western Michigan was the only team above a 3.0 GPA, thanks in large part to a 3.14 during the fall semester. A total of eight student-athletes on the 14-man roster garnered a grade-point-average of 3.0-or-above in the fall, including a pair of ace students (4.0 GPA) in freshmen Steve Green and Loren Scheu. Green has never received a "B" in his distinguished academic career. "The academic success is an example of what our guys have done in building an all-around program that alumni and students can be proud to support," McCullum said. The results were compiled via an unofficial survey of the league's men's basketball sports information directors. The MAC doesn't release the rankings among all of the programs.

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