WMU preview: Star Thomas Wilder has improved supporting cast

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Thomas Wilder

Thomas Wilder flirted with entering the NBA draft before deciding to come back for his senior year at Western Michigan.

Now Wilder and the Broncos take aim at the Mid-American Conference championship and their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.

The Broncos showed their potential last season, winning nine of their final 10 games to finish 16-16 (11-7 MAC), They return four of five starters, including Wilder, the preseason MAC Player of the Year, 6-8 Brandon Johnson, 6-6 guard Reggie Jones – both sophomores – and a physical inside presence in 7-0, 240-pound junior Seth Dugan.

“That was one of the big factors, knowing we have a lot of talent back – that and the draft being loaded with point guards,” said the 6--3, 190-pound Wilder on his decision to return. “I want to give myself the best chance to be where I want to be at the end of the day, then of course we have a legitimate chance of winning the MAC championship so I took that consideration, as well. I just want to do my best to lead the team and learn as much as possible.

“We had a lot of freshmen last year so we were young and a lot of those freshmen played and toward the end of the season they started getting things together. I think we can build off of that because those freshmen who are sophomores now have done nothing but gotten better, grown and gotten stronger. I feel we were the hottest team at that point last year and I feel that can carry over now.”

Wilder averaged 19.3 points, four assists and four rebounds, leading the conference in 3-point shooting percentage (63-of-142, .444) to earn first-team All-MAC honors.

Wilder says he has taken big strides in his shooting since arriving at WMU.

“Really, coming in I didn’t have a jump shot; I was more of a slasher,” he said. “I still like to get to the basket more than shooting. But now I’m a capable shooter, so if they’re taking away my drive I can shoot. Toward the end of last year and the start of this year I’ve become more of a leader too, really embraced that role.”

Wilder scored 19 against Villanova last season, 22 against UCLA and had 14 points and 10 assists against Washington. He also showed his ability to score in bunches when he tossed in 31 of his career-high 38 points in the second half against Bowling Green.

Final Four team South Carolina is on the Broncos’ schedule, Nov. 13. Wilder says WMU will be ready to play with such high competition with an experienced group. He had high praise for sophomores like Jones (9.4 points, 3.5 rebounds), who scored 26 in a win over Miami and had eight assists against Kent State, and Johnson (8.0 points, 5.5 rebounds), who scored 15 in a loss to Central Michigan.

“They’re willing to learn, they’re in the gym all the time,” said Wilder of Jones and Johnson. “Reggie can shoot, put it on the floor and do basically anything a point forward can do, and Brandon is a beast on the boards, has a nice 15-foot jump shot and is starting to step out and hit threes as well.

“We also have some size. Seth’s my guy; he’s going to be big for us. We need him to become more vocal, more of a leader, and he’s capable of that. Drake (6-10 senior Lamont) gives us everything he has when he’s out there, leads us in charges.”

Johnson and Jones both had offseason procedures done on their knees, but have returned to full health.

“I tore a tendon in my left and right knee, had to sit out for a month after the season, but after that I went through rehab and got back into the swing of thing. I feel great now, feel like I can jump higher (34-inch vertical),” said Johnson. “Playing the four (power forward) is a great fit for me.”

Western Michigan Broncos

Coach: Steve Hawkins (15th season, 253-204, 141-98 MAC)

Last season: 16-16 (11-7 MAC).

Top returning players: Thomas Wilder, 6-3, Sr., guard (19.3 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, .444 3-point percentage), Brandon Johnson, 6-8, So., forward (8 points, 5.5 rebounds), Reggie Jones, 6-6, So., guard/forward (9.4 points, 40 percent 3-pointers), Seth Dugan, 7-0, Jr., center (6.1 points, 5.4 rebounds).

Who can’t have a bad season? Wilder, who runs the show, can score in transition, hit the perimeter shot and get teammates involved.

Who must have a good season? Dugan has to take his game to the next level and average a double-double.

This player will surprise everyone with a big season: Former Detroit Henry Ford guard Josh Davis, who is in the best shape of his life. He scored 14 against defending national champ Villanova last season, but averaged just 2 points for the season.

WMU can win the MAC championship if ... Wilder equals his season of a year ago, Dugan plays to his potential and Johnson and Jones continue to progress like coach Steve Hawkins believes they will.

WMU won’t win the MAC title if ... Wilder gets injured and Dugan fails to elevate his game.

Toughest opponent on the schedule: at Final Four team South Carolina on Nov. 13.

Team to not overlook: Oakland University, especially since the Golden Grizzlies are the preseason favorite in the Horizon League with a strong nucleus in forward Jalen Hayes and guards Martez Walker and Kendrick Nunn. The teams will play Dec. 2 in Kalamazoo.