Brandon Johnson is healthy and playing well for Western Michigan after missing the entire 2018-19 season due to a knee injury.
Johnson, a 6-foot-8 junior power forward, is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds for the Broncos, who need to give him more help if they have any hopes of ending their four-game losing streak.
Johnson has played well consistently for the bulk of the season, but he has had little help on the boards, a reason the Broncos rank last in the Mid-American Conference in rebounding margin (minus-2.4 per game).
And it looks like time is running out on Steve Hawkins’ 17-year run as WMU’s head coach with the Broncos (11-16, 4-10) sitting in the basement of the MAC West Division.
Hawkins had a solid run in his first dozen years (224-169, 123-79), which included two MAC championships (2004, 2014). But he is in the final year of his contract and the Broncos have gone 65-90 (33-53 MAC) the last five years, including 19-40 (6-26) the last two.
If WMU decides to part with Hawkins, Michigan assistant Saddi Washington would have to be considered a candidate to take over. As a standout guard, Washington led the Broncos to their last NCAA Tournament win, over Clemson in 1998.
Still, Johnson has been a bright spot in a dismal season for the Broncos. He said it was tough to sit out all of last season.
“I tore my meniscus and I had a chipped bone all in the same knee right before the season started. It happened in practice when I bumped knees with a teammate, so it kept me out eight months,” said Johnson. “It was definitely a blow because I stayed at school the whole summer to work on my game, work on stuff that I wasn’t as strong at, so to see my year go away like that hurt, but my family kept me strong and focused for the next season.
“The love of the game pushed me to get through the rehab and back on the court. Sitting out a year was definitely a learning experience. I got to see the game from a different perspective, so I learned a lot from my time out and I think it’s definitely showing.
“I’ve become more patient this season. My first two years if I got the ball I rushed to get my shot or rushed to hit the open man, so patience is definitely the key, and now that I learned it I feel I’ve helped my teammates with that too.”
Johnson has also improved his perimeter game this season. He had 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting in a 64-60 win over Miami of Ohio Feb. 4, then scored 29 in a 68-64 win over Ball State on Feb. 8 – the Broncos’ last win – making 12-of-14 shots from the field.
In a 90-79 loss to two-time defending MAC champion Buffalo, Johnson scored 18, making 6-of-9 shots, knocking down both of his 3-point shots.
“My outside game has improved because anything outside of 15 feet my first two years I wasn’t really comfortable doing, but the last two summers I’ve been working with my coaches and trainers to just get in the flow of the game,” Johnson said.
CMU has busy week
Central Michigan’s season was looking good earlier this month when the Chippewas defeated MAC East-leading Bowling Green 92-82 Feb. 4 to improve to 13-8, 6-2, to climb into the West Division lead.
But things haven’t gone so smoothly since that win over Bowling Green.
In fact, CMU (13-13, 6-7) has lost five straight, including Saturday’s 82-81 overtime loss at Northern Illinois, to fall to .500 and below the break-even mark in conference play.
The Chippewas, known for their 3-point shooting, have been cold from deep range during their recent slide, making just 35-of-128 3s for 27.3 percent.
CMU can turn things around in a hurry, playing three games in five days, starting with a home game with Toledo (13-14, 5-9) Tuesday, then playing at Miami (10-16, 3-10) Thursday before taking on Eastern Michigan Saturday.
EMU streak ends
EMU’s three-game winning streak came to a crashing halt Saturday when the Eagles let a 12-point second-half lead slip away in a 64-55 loss at Ball State.
The Eagles have been playing well since an 0-7 MAC start, winning five of six before the loss Saturday.
EMU (15-12, 5-9) will host MAC West-leading Northern Illinois (16-11, 9-5) Tuesday before hosting CMU.
Former MSU guard and assistant coach Mark Montgomery has guided Northern Illinois to seven wins in the last nine games while playing outstanding defense.
Montgomery played for Jud Heathcote in the early 1990s, then was an assistant coach under Tom Izzo for 10 years. He is in his ninth year as head coach at NIU.