2011-12 WWU men's basketball preview:
Oct. 20, 2011
BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Nearly everybody is back for the 2011-12 Western Washington University men's basketball team.
The Vikings lost just one starter and one significant reserve from last season's 16-11 team that placed fourth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season standings at 11-7. And along with nine letter winners returning from 2010-11, they have three redshirts to add to that group, two of whom have played significant minutes in previous seasons.
The Vikings had some high points a year ago for head coach Brad Jackson, who enters his 27th season as the school's all-time best in career victories, just 13 short of 500, and winning percentage (487-274, .640). They started the season 6-1 and also had a six-game winning streak in the midst of conference play, but also ended the campaign by losing four straight contests.
"We weren't a bad team last year, but we weren't able to sustain a high level of play consistently," said Jackson. "We had a lot of new faces, and by necessity we also had to ask guys to do things that maybe weren't the areas they were most gifted in.
"I do think we're a more mature team now. Just the sheer fact of having guys in the program for another year means they know what to expect. And the end of our season wasn't fun, I think that sticks in our guys craw a little bit."
The four returning starters are two seniors - forward Rory Blanche (Ashland, OR) and forward/guard Zach Henifin (Bellingham) - and two juniors - guard John Allen (Brier/Mountlake Terrace) and center Chris Mitchell (Everson/Nooksack Valley).
Allen earned second-team all-league honors last season, averaging 14.3 points a game, including 43 in a victory over Simon Fraser. He also led the Vikings in assists (4.1) and steals (1.7), and shot 91.5 percent on free throws (65-of-71), which ranked second nationally in NCAA Division II.
"John can score in bunches," said Jackson. "Last year was the first time in four years he'd played regularly. He had some incredible games and I think with a year behind him, the rough edges will smooth out and his game will be more complete."
Blanche, a three-year letter winner, earned honorable mention all-GNAC status last season, averaging 14.3 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 62.8 percent, the second-best mark in the GNAC and No.14 nationally, from the field.
"It has been really fun watching Rory develop," said Jackson. "He's had a great academic career, he's become physically stronger, and he's become a leader. It's nice to go into a season with a guy like that."
Henifin averaged 9.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He's versatile enough to play any position on the floor.
"He's as good an athlete as there is out there, he's physically tough and likes a challenge," Jackson said. "We asked him to do a lot of different things last year, now we've tried to focus on letting him do the things he does the best."
Mitchell averaged 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, and showed uncommon touch for a 6-foot-9 center, hitting 25-of-63 3-pointers (39.7 percent).
Three other players who saw regular action throughout the season also return - senior guard Shedrick Nelson (Tacoma/Wilson), senior center Dan Young (Federal Way), and sophomore guard Dane Thorpe (Bellingham/Sehome).
Nelson, who made four starts, averaged 8.7 points in roughly 20 minutes a game. Young averaged 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds while leading Western in blocks (1.0). Thorpe contributed 1.7 points.
Another returnee is junior guard Rico Wilkins (Dallas, TX/DeSoto), who played in the first five games last year, making three starts and averaging 7.6 points and 4.4 assists before suffering an Achilles' tendon injury that forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Senior guard Anthony Wiederkehr (Lakewood), who saw action in 19 games, also returns.
The three redshirts are junior guard Cameron Severson (Petersburg, AK), sophomore guard Richard Woodworth (Bellevue/Newport), and junior forward Paul Jones (Kent/Kent-Meridian). Severson played in all but one game over the previous two seasons, averaging 5.0 points as a freshman and 4.4 as a sophomore before missing last year with a foot injury. Woodworth, also injured last season, saw action in 26 games in 2009-10, averaging 2.0 points. Jones was an all-region pick for Whatcom CC in 2009-10, averaging 13.0 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Sophomore forward Bryce McPhee (Normandy Park/Mount Rainier) will redshirt.
Four newcomers complete the roster. Two are community college transfers - junior forward Damien Fisher (Fife) from Centralia CC and junior guard Alfred Davis (Tacoma/Lincoln) from Pierce CC - and the others are freshmen - guard Kyle Impero (Everson/Nooksack Valley) and forward Eric Fongue (Dietikon, Switzerland). One specific area Jackson has targeted for improvement is defense. The Vikings led the GNAC in scoring at 83.2 points a game, but allowed 81.0 a contest, eighth in the 10-team league.
"Without a doubt, we will be better at the defensive end," he said.
The Vikings get an early start to the season, playing in the NCAA II Disney Tip-Off Classic at Anaheim, Calif., in the first weekend of November, opening the tourney Nov. 4 against Dominican.
"It's a nice way to start the year, "said Jackson. "It's in a beautiful place, with great weather, and we're able to get the team together for a few days, have a chance to do a couple things outside basketball. Plus, from a coaching standpoint, we get to play early and get a good measure of where we're at. It's a win-win across the board."
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