WMU preview: Steve Hawkins optimistic about turnaround, with Broncos finally healthy

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Western Michigan guard Michael Flowers

Kalamazoo — Steve Hawkins has accomplished a lot during his long career at Western Michigan, but not much during the past five years, a reason he is now the lame duck head coach of the Broncos and possibly in need of a big season to keep his job.

Hawkins guided the Broncos to a pair of Mid-American Conference championships (2004, 2014) and NCAA tournament appearances during his first 11 years, but that last MAC title has been followed with a sub-.500 record (74-88, 39-51 MAC), including the worst showing of his 16 years last season (8-24, 2-16).

Hawkins is encouraged by the health of his team and the return of standout 6-foot-8, 220-pound junior forward Brandon Johnson, as well as 6-4 sophomore Jason Whitens after both missed last season because of injuries.

And Hawkins returns 6-4 junior forward Michael Flowers (15.7 points) who was a preseason All-West first-team selection by the MAC coaches.

Hawkins feels like the Broncos could have one of the top backcourts in the MAC with freshman B. Artis White, a Mr. Basketball finalist from Canton, joining Flowers.

Hawkins is also looking forward to what type of improvement players like 6-5 junior forward Squeaky Wilkins and 6-6 sophomore forward Patrick Emilien make after being pressed into playing time last season because of the injury situation.

Hawkins will get the opportunity to see how things are going Wednesday night when the Broncos host McNeese State at University Arena in Kalamazoo.

“I’m really excited, this is probably as excited as I’ve been since No. 1 we’re healthy and this is the first time in three years that we’ve gone into this point of time with 14 healthy guys,” Hawkins said. “It’s just a really together group. We’ve had great practices. They’ve been a lot of fun to be around and the talent level is high.”

When Johnson is healthy, he has the ability to contribute a double-double any time he steps on the court. He averaged 9.3 rebounds and 5.8 rebounds two years ago when WMU had a loaded lineup and was the preseason MAC West favorite before stumbling to a 17-15 record (9-9 MAC).

“Brandon was out from a knee injury, so he never played a minute for us last year,” Hawkins said. “Brandon’s healthy so he gives us a proven scorer and an athletic presence inside. He started in the MAC already and having that back is welcome. Another kid who didn’t play a minute is Jason Whitens who is kind of glue guy, a blue-collar guy who was voted team captain by his teammates as a sophomore last year before he got hurt.”

Hawkins plans to give Flowers less time at the point, putting the ball in the hands of White, along with sophomore William Boyer-Richard and junior Rafael Cruz.

“I think B. Artis is going to be really good for us,” Hawkins said. “Mike Flowers played point for us last year, but we also had William Boyer-Richard who played point and then we brought in a JC kid Rafael Cruz who plays point and has done a nice job, so we have options there. We’re trying to keep Mike off the ball more this year.

“Bringing the ball up the court can be taxing, if you’re a scorer and you’re also asked to bring the ball up the court. I thought it got to Mike last year because we didn’t have the numbers, so we’re going to move him off the ball more than on the ball.”

So, what is Flowers’ strengths as a player?

“He’s a scorer,” Hawkins said. “He’s cold blooded in that respect. He had 31 points at Michigan last year, 27 at Cincinnati.

"We’re not going to need that from him this year because we’re going to be a really well-balanced team and we have a lot more weapons at every spot, but he is capable of doing that. We’re not going to get away from who he is.

“B. Artis is really quick, one of the quickest players we’ve ever had, and he can shoot it. He’s a great perimeter shooter. Between him and Flowers both out there I think from a guard play standpoint we have a couple of guys who can score it in a variety of ways.”

Hawkins said he could play Johnson at center, but also plans to get playing time for 6-10 freshman Chase Barrs from Tampa, along with 6-8, 260-pound freshman Titus Wright. He said Barrs and Wright will be in the 10-man rotation, as will Emilien and Wilkins.

“Last year was the worst year we’ve had record wise and I’d be really concerned if I didn’t know why it happened, but having three upperclassmen all out, Bryce Moore, Brandon Johnson and Jason Whitens, that was the bad news,” Hawkins said. “The bad news was that we also needed to have a lot of freshmen or first year players play for us. Patrick Emilien, Squeaky Wilkins, William Boyer-Richard, those three guys in particular.

"What they should have been doing is getting five to eight minutes a game, but instead they were playing 25 to 28 minutes a game. That was the bad news, but the good news is this year they have all that experience and they know what D1 ball is all about and what the MAC is all about.”

Western Michigan

Coach: Steve Hawkins (17th season, 278-243, 152-122 MAC)

Last season: 8-24 (2-16 MAC)

Top returning players: Michael Flowers, 6-4, Jr., guard (15.7 points); Brandon Johnson, 6-8, Jr., forward (9.3 points, 5.8 rebounds in 2017-18); Jason Whitens, 6-4, So., guard

Who can’t have a bad season? Michael Flowers who is one of the top players in the MAC and can score in multiple ways, taking the ball to the basket or making the 3-ball.

Others to watch: Brandon Johnson will need to have an injury-free season to be an inside threat for the Broncos, the same can be said about Jason Whitens who plays strong defense. Freshman combo guard B. Artis White is expected to get plenty of playing time and give them another option on the perimeter.