WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer swap with Scott DeCamp, who covers Western Michigan men’s basketball for the Kalamaoo (Mich.) Gazette.
Wyoming (20-13) hosts Western Michigan (21-12) in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational at 7 tonight at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.
Question: Was Western Michigan disappointed it didn’t get into the NIT, and in your opinion, has the team bought in to playing in the CBI?
Answer: I think it was understood that WMU was probably not going to be considered for the NIT. The Mid-American Conference is generally a one-bid league (for the NCAA Tournament), and that typically means the winner of the MAC Tournament gets the bid and loser goes to the NIT. Akron won the MAC tourney and received the NCAA automatic bid, Ohio lost in the MAC tourney finals and went to the NIT. WMU lost to Ohio in the MAC tourney semifinals, which essentially locked the Broncos into the CBI. I think WMU is excited about playing in the CBI. This is a young team with eight freshmen. Many people, before the season, expected the Broncos to finish in the .500 or sub-.500 range, so they’ve overachieved in some ways.
Q: The Broncos have a big and productive front court. Is that the strength of this team?
A: The front court of 6-11 redshirt junior center Shayne Whittington and 6-8 freshman forward Darius Paul is definitely the strength for WMU. Whittington is the team’s leading scorer (13.2) and rebounder (8.8), and was a second-team All-MAC selection. Paul, who was named the MAC’s Freshman of the Year, is second in both scoring (10.8) and rebounding (5.8) for WMU and has led all conference freshmen in both categories all season. As a sidenote, Paul is the younger brother of Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, who led the Illini past Colorado with a game-high 17 points in the NCAA tourney matchup Friday. Senior Nate Hutcheson, a 6-7 forward, rounds out WMU’s front court. He’s more of a jack-of-all trades kind of player and good defender.
Q: The team also gets to the free-throw line a lot. Does it do that by pounding the ball inside, dribble penetration by guards or a combination of both?
A: WMU gets to the free-throw line primarily because of its Whittington/Paul inside presence, but players like Hutcheson and sixth man David Brown do a good job attacking the basket, too. Brown, by the way, was named the MAC’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Q: From what you have heard or seen on Wyoming, does it compare to any teams the Broncos have played this season?
A: I think everybody heard about Wyoming’s 13-0 start to the season, then kind of wondered what happened to the Cowboys once the conference season hit. I know the Mountain West Conference was very good this season and figured that had at least something to do with Wyoming’s dip during that stretch of the season.
Q: How do you see the game unfolding and who wins?
A: I can see WMU competing in this game and having a chance of winning, but wonder how the travel will affect the Broncos. I saw that Wyoming drew about 1,500 fans for its CBI opener against Lehigh, and also wonder if the home crowd will play a factor at all. You never really know what you’re going to get attendance-wise and in terms of fan engagement/intensity when you’re in a postseason tournament like the CBI. Good guards have pretty much had their way with WMU for most of this season. If the Broncos allow Wyoming’s Derrious Gilmore to get going like he did against Lehigh, then it could be a long night. Here’s my prediction: Wyoming 71, WMU 65
Q: Wyoming started the season 13-0 and then went 4-12 in the Mountain West. Was that a product of the MWC being so tough or other factors?
A: The toughness of the Mountain West — from top to bottom — definitely was a factor in Wyoming’s struggles in conference play. This was by far the best the league has ever been, and will be for a long time. However, there were other factors. Senior guard Luke Martinez was the team’s best perimeter player on offense and defense, but he was suspended after being arrested and charged for aggravated assault and battery from a bar fight in late December. Injuries and illness to other players throughout the conference season also started to mount and Wyoming, at this point, doesn’t have the depth or quality of depth to overcome all that with the the league being so good.
Q: What is the mental state of this Wyoming team, given its ups and downs throughout the season – are the Cowboys motivated playing in this tournament, especially coming off the buzzer-beating win, or are they disappointed because they’re not in the NCAA tourney or NIT?
A: The mental state of the team is pretty good. There was disappointment about the way things went in conference play, but it maintained a pretty good attitude through the adversity — and even when things were going well. I think the win over Lehigh helped in terms of getting that first postseason win. I am not sure if Wyoming has enough to make a deep run in the CBI, but it won’t be for a lack of want-to at this point.
Q: What should WMU expect to see from Wyoming senior forward Leonard Washington, who played only two minutes against Lehigh but appears to be quite a force for the Cowboys?
A: If healthy, Washington is a dynamic player that can dominate. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy for the last month or so with ankle and back injuries. He is a shell of his old self and played only two minutes against Lehigh because of his back. Washington has lost his explosiveness and lift that are his two biggest strengths. The rest between games probably has helped, but unless there is a miraculous improvement I don’t expect Western Michigan to see the type of player that Monday.
Q: Do you expect the environment to play a factor in Monday night’s game – how big will home-court advantage be?
A: Just playing at home will be good for Wyoming as it has won 23 consecutive nonconference home games dating back to 2010, and coach Larry Shyatt is 42-9 in home games. But fans are not interested in the CBI with only 1,528 there for the Lehigh game. There should be a better crowd Monday with students back from spring break, but it won’t be daunting by any means for the Broncos. There is the altitude at 7,220 feet, but if the Broncos play well and don’t let that get into their heads I don’t expect that to be a huge factor.
Q: How do you see this game playing out, and what is your prediction?
A: With Washington’s uncertain health status, it will be difficult for Wyoming to handle Western Michigan’s inside game. The Broncos should do what they want inside and on the boards. If Wyoming can hit some outside shots to open up the middle a little bit, it has a chance. If not, I see Western Michigan winning by eight to 10 points.