By John Sleeper
This was the season Western Washington University’s men’s basketball team was really supposed to be good.
The thing is, last season was the best in school history.
The Vikings are coming off a 27-4 year and a showing in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II national tournament. Not only did they lose just one regular off that team to graduation, they get back two who were declared academically ineligible just before Christmas last year.
“If you look at our team, you don’t see any real holes,” said WWU coach Brad Jackson, in his 17th year.
As it was the case last season, the problem in defending the Vikings is finding a player on whom to key. All four returning starters averaged better than 14 points a game last season. Senior guard Jacob Stevenson was a first-team all-PacWest selection and the Most Outstanding Player in the West Regional. He averaged 16.1 points and 4.4 assists a year ago.
But he’s hardly the only Viking who can score. Guard Shelton Diggs averaged 14.2 points a game and was WWU’s best 3-point shooter at 40.3 percent. Senior forward A.J. Giesa put up 14.5 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. Mike Palm, the Vikings’ 6-foot-10 center scored 14.6 a game, took down 7.3 rebounds, blocked 1.1 shots and shot 54.7 percent for the season.
The point is this: Everyone can score. Everyone has had experience in important games. It appears that the only team that can stop Western is itself.
Jackson says that’s unlikely.
“They’re really focused; they’re really excited about the season,” he said. “The neatest thing about our team is that they truly enjoy each other. Every day we come to practice, the kids like being there. They like spending time with each other. I think it shows on the court. That’s been our mode for a long time. You’re going to see four, maybe five guys in double figures. It’s going to be different guys on a given night.”
The Vikings’ consistency is what teams will have to deal with. As Jackson said, the team has no discernable weaknesses. Yes, the wild card is injuries, but the Vikings are so deep they can withstand a certain amount of hurt to frontline players.
Remember, WWU had 6-6 senior center Brian Dennis (from Meadowdale High School) and senior guard Darnell Taylor for just the first nine games last season. Declared academically ineligible after Christmas, Dennis and Taylor return to make the Vikings even deeper than when they won the PacWest Conference title, took the West Region tournament and crashed the Elite Eight national tournament.
After all, these weren’t trivial loses. Dennis, at 300 pounds, averaged 14.3 points a game and led NCAA Division II in both rebounding (11.6) and field goal percentage (72.1 percent).
Taylor, at 5-9 the quickest guy on the team, averaged 11.3 points and 2.0 assists a game.
So they aren’t trivial additions, either.
“When they became ineligible, they practiced the whole rest of the year,” Jackson said. “They were a big part of what we accomplished because they busted their tails getting the other guys ready to go. Both of them have come back with a real resolve.”
A top reserve is sophomore guard Jason Burrell, who averaged 8.5 points and 2.3 assists a game. Another is 6-5 junior forward Nehemiah Campbell, a defensive stopper who is starting to be an offensive force.
A standout newcomer is 6-7 forward Maurice Tyree, the Sacramento Bee Player of the Year, who averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots a game in high school. Andy Wheat, a 6-4 senior from Kamiak High School and Edmonds Community College, also is expected to contribute.
“I think we’ve got a lot of tools,” Jackson said. “The key is the effort and how well we play together.”
The numbers suggest they’ll do that quite well, thank you.