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When the Western Michigan men's basketball team kicks off its season Nov. 16 against Aquinas, it'll attempt a first: Win the Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament titles and reach the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons.

Coming off its best season since 2004, Western Michigan returns all but one player from last year's 23-10 team that recorded its sixth conference title, second conference tournament championship and fourth NCAA Tournament appearance.

"I think they got a good taste of it," coach Steve Hawkins said Tuesday. "Last year was a bit of a blur because we were chasing all year long. At one point I think we were 8-5 early in the season and trying to find our identity.

"When it finally clicked we won 12 of the last 14 games, but we always had something to chase. So when we were able to win it all, I think it was a great experience. Guys have experience of being there now and playing in big games on the big stage."

But Hawkins added he was concerned about whether last season's success will serve as motivation this year.

"It can either make you hungry for more or you can sort of rest a little bit," he said. "For the most part, I think this team has responded in our preparation, and we talk to the guys about being a predator or prey. There's nothing in between."

CMU optimistic

Inexperience, defensive struggles and lack of size plagued Central Michigan as it stumbled to a 10-21 record and finished near the bottom of the conference at 3-15.

But third-year coach Keno Davis believes that with all five starters returning, better things are on the horizon.

"I think coming into this year there's a reason for optimism," Davis said. "We have the bulk of our scoring, rebounding and experience back. Our guys are looking forward to making a jump not only during conference play, but during the entire season. ... I think we're going to be a dangerous team once MAC play starts."

EMU's Raven the key

Eastern Michigan steadily has improved each season since coach Rob Murphy took over in 2011.

And with Raven Lee one of three returning starters, Murphy knows the junior guard will be key to building off last year's 22-win season.

"When you're building a program and recruit these guys, one of the main things you look for is consistency within a player," Murphy said. "I think that was Raven's problem last year.

"He is a guy that we're depending on to score points, play good defense and be one of the leaders of our program. ... He's a focal point for us and a guy we need to play well to be successful."

James Hawkins is a free-lance writer.

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