A Tale of Two Basketball Teams

It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.  Alright that’s enough of that.  I’m not writing 15,000 words about Bowling Green and Western Michigan basketball.  These two team’s seasons have gone in very different directions, especially in view of preseason predictions.  So what happened?  Why are the Broncos three games behind Ohio for a tie for the worst league record?  How did Bowling Green go from a last place in the MAC Preseason Poll to 12-5 in MAC play and second in the East?

2017-2018 Season

In the 2017-18 basket ball season, neither Bowling Green or Western Michigan had remarkable seasons.  Neither team finished over .500 for MAC play, but neither team was bad.  Western wanted desperately to capitalize on Thomas Wilder’s last season in brown and gold, and Bowling Green was a team looking to the future with one senior on the roster and a promising core.

The Falcons may have met their goals, even though they were 16-16 on the season.  Six of the losses were within two possessions or less.  With a good off-season and solid recruiting a big jump could be around the corner.  After the season, three underclassmen transferred out of the program.  Two of them, Rodrick Caldwell and Derek Koch, started a combined 49 games and both transferred to Ashland University.  That’s not great.

Western Michigan was picked to win the MAC West before the season started.  That makes the 9-9 record in the MAC and the first round exit in the conference tournament sting a little bit.  Still, only two seniors were leaving and one had an arguably better player coming off the bench to give him a rest.  Junior seven footer Seth Dugan wasn’t healthy all season but he was a solid big man coming off the bench.  Sophomore Reggie Jones came off the bench in all but the 6 games he started and was third on the team in scoring.  Jones averaged 10.1 points per game.  He transferred to Tulsa in the off-season.

Media Projections vs. The Numbers

The Falcons were picked last by the official MAC Preseason poll and the only other place that I could find quickly was Three Man Weave.  They did a little better in hindsight but still had Bowling Green in the third tier of four.  Western was expected to not be great this season but no one had them as far and away the worst team in the conference.  Don’t get me wrong, I know how projections work.  You have to be pretty sure that there’s going to be a disaster to project a disaster.

At the time of both publications, Reggie Jones had transferred, Bryce Moore had been lost for the year with a knee injury, and Brandon Johnson had underwent knee surgery and may not return at all.  Those three, the two seniors and two less consequential underclassmen aren’t with the Broncos this winter.  Those departures account for two thirds of the minutes played in the ’17-’18 season.  They also account for 1328 shots over a season that have to be redistributed to other players.  That’s a lot.  Especially with how minutes were distributed by coach Steve Hawkins, four players were going to see their minutes jump up to starter minutes and many others go from clean up minutes to role players.  Maybe this step backwards was foreseeable.

Bowling Green doesn’t have any real reasons to be put as low as they were.  Especially in the MAC Preseason poll.  Dead last when the top three players all return?  It would be one thing if those players struggled in ’17-’18, but they didn’t.  Justin Turner (not the Dodger third baseman), Dylan Frye, and Demajeo Wiggins averaged 15.9 points per game, 11.8 points per game, and 13.7 points per game respectively.  Wiggins averaged a double double as a junior.

2018-2019 Season

So here we are at the end of the season.  With hindsight we can see two teams that didn’t meet their expectations, one in a positive way and one not so positive.  What changed on the court to take two teams from close to .500 to 12-5 for Bowling Green and 2-15 for Western Michigan?

Bowling Green

For Bowling Green, the offense didn’t grow much.  The returning players took over more production than they did in ’17-’18.  As a group, the shooting got better by 2%.  It’s not nothing but it works out to about 40 more baskets made over a 30 game season.  The improvement came on the defensive side.  The rebounding took a small step forward and the opponent shooting percentage dropped significantly.  In ’17-’18 the Falcons allowed a shooting percentage of 45.8%.  That’s not good.  Opponents were able to get a good shot when they wanted it.  So far this season that’s down to 41.9%.  To bring this all together, a team with a 7-11 MAC record with a lot of close games:

  1. Got a little better on offense.
  2. Forced opponents to miss more shots.
  3. Ended the possessions more often with better rebounding.
  4. Decreased turnovers by about one a game.

All of that adds up to enough incremental improvement to win at least 5 more games apparently.  That makes sense.  Maybe the Falcons hit the lottery by getting all of these to break their way with almost no regression.  Still they stand to make a run in the conference tournament if they can continue this level of play.

Western Michigan

The Broncos basically reset their playing time over the last off-season.  One of the players that needed to be replaced was Thomas Wilder who finished his career second on the WMU all time scoring list.  With only two seniors playing in ’18-’19 and one hurt, the juniors and seniors needed to pick up the slack.  Senior Seth Dugan improved dramatically this season.

He saw his minutes double, his shooting percentage increase, score at a higher rate, rebound at a higher rate, and his fouls per 40 minutes decrease.  He has done everything he can as a senior in the middle of the floor.  The other senior, Josh Davis, has more or less duplicated his junior season.  He’s a strong player and in most circumstances that’s all he would need to do.

The issues are more apparent at the level of the whole team.  The turnover differential changed from about +3 to about -4 a game.  Seven more possessions per game ended without a shot this season compared to last.  That happens when young players handle the ball.  The defense was about the same, maybe a slight improvement year over year, but shooting percentages dropped in every category.  A decrease in shooting quality paired with fewer possessions due to turnovers can really do a number on an offense.

What to Make of All This

The Broncos without the injuries to Brandon Johnson and Bryce Moore is clearly a different team.  Since the Broncos last made the NCAA tournament in 2014 their best finish has been 11-7 in MAC play.  Is this season with 2 or 3 wins enough to initiate a change?  It depends on the basis of the decision.  If it’s the lack of success this season, that would be terribly short sighted.  Injury and transfer forced this team into a situation that created what is essentially a turnover of two thirds of playing time.  I wouldn’t be comfortable firing a coach because of a situation created by injury.

If the athletic director wants to cite the lack of sustained success for a coach in his 16th season and wants a different style of play, that could make some sense.  Making a change for the sake of change wouldn’t be a risk worth taking.  There better be a list of candidates ready to interview.  This year excluded, Coach Hawkins has been extremely consistent at producing competitive teams, if not always at the top of the West.

Bowling Green seems to have hired a good coach in Michael Huger.  In his fourth season he has the team second in the East.  The previous three years have built to this point going 5-13, 7-11, and 7-11.  With this being his first head coaching job, if he can maintain the program at this level, he may be getting a bigger job soon.  This season has been a surprise, even though if I’m not sure it should have been.

The rest of the season includes a trip to Buffalo tonight and then at worst the third seed for the conference tournament in Cleveland.  Since they are one of only three teams to beat Buffalo this year, anything can happen the rest of the way.  A tournament birth from a win in the conference tournament would be an immaculate result for this season, regardless of the NCAA tournament results.  Even without the NCAA tournament, Bowling Green has to be excited about the future of the program.

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