WWU looking for another national title
Nov. 23, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
By ANDREW LANG -- THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
What's better than one national title?
When the 31-5 defending NCAA Division II champion Western Washington University men's basketball team recently received their official rings, senior guard John Allen said players' eyes filled with greed looking at last year's crown jewel resting on their fingers.
"All the guys that don't have one are like, 'Man, I'd really like one of those,'" he said. "Now us, we're like, "I can really use another one of those.' Coach has been talking about getting greedy, and I think that's kind of something that everybody is feeling."
The Vikings face a tall task. The only thing harder than winning a national title is repeating, and Western has undergone heavy construction in the team's foundation since WWU hoisted its championship trophy nearly eight months ago after beating Montevallo 72-65.
It began with the exodus of long-tenured coach Brad Jackson, who left WWU after 27 years to take an assistant coaching position under Lorenzo Romar at the University of Washington.
However, new head coach Tony Dominguez, who was an assistant coach under Jackson for 17 years, thinks Western has the right tools to build another winning product.
The new-look Vikings will be showcased when WWU faces Concordia-St. Paul during the opening night of the WWU Chuck Randall Classic at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23, at Carver Gym.
"Mental toughness," said Dominguez when asked if there's a general message he's been preaching. "With coach Jackson here, we have given the players hope that the impossible can happen. We are going to get opponents' best game, so we have been really hammering to not focus on the big picture. We want to focus day by day, week by week. We want to control what we can and not worry about what other people are saying."
Common thought would suggest replacing a WWU basketball fixture such as Jackson would be a tough transition, but that's not the case with Dominguez stepping in.
"I think it's been a really smooth transition," senior center Chris Mitchell said. "I like coach Dominguez a lot. I think from day one he kind of set the tone for what our practices are going to be like and what we are going to approach every game like. I mean coach Dominguez was a huge part of our success last year. He is used to half-time talks. We're used to him coaching us and really taking the lead, so everyone is really buying into what he is saying."
Allen agreed with Mitchell, saying Dominguez as head coach is "the smoothest transition I think anyone could ask for."
Allen raved about the relationships Dominguez creates with his players and his overall business-like desire to win. "Coach D has always been a relationship kind of guy," he said. "He gets real personal and close with all of us, which is unique, because I feel like most head coaches don't do that. That fact he was an assistant, we got to know him real well and the new guys have got to know him real well. We're all close to him. We all trust him. It helps us trust him that he is going to do the right things to point us in the right direction."
The Vikings believe Mitchell's development, Paul Jones' expanded role and the addition of junior college transfers Austin Bragg and Anye Turner, will make up for the loss of Blanche, Henifin and Dan Young.
Mitchell averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 boards last season, and Jones averaged 7.9 points and 4.4 rebounds.
In No. 6-ranked WWU's three wins this season, Jones is transitioning from last year's sixth-man role to become an offensive offense star. He's averaged a team-best 19 points during the Vikings' wins against Multnomah, BYU Hawaii and Chaminade.
Bragg, a long, athletic 6-foot-9 forward, has an inside-outside game similar to Mitchell's, can rebound well and is slated to start in the front court alongside Mitchell and Jones.
Turner, a 6-foot-7 JC transfer from South Puget Sound Community College, is another player who'll see plenty of minutes in the paint.
"Paul last year was a starter as far as ability," Dominguez said. "Zach was much better at starting than coming off the bench. Paul was able to fill that (sixth-man) role really well, so him stepping up, I feel very confident in him. Austin is versatile and talented. He has the ability to shoot, rebound and be a good passer. On paper, those guys are as good as we can hope for."
Allen admitted replacing Blanche's play and leadership will be tough, but he said Mitchell is emerging as a true leader in the front court. "Just the way Chris has been playing, we have all kind of jumped on his back," Allen said. "He has kind of been carrying us. He's been playing hard and physical. He's been knocking shots down and being vocal. Just having him in the middle; he's a senior, been here a long time and knows how to win. I guess you could say he's even mentoring Austin and Anye a little bit."
Henifin and Blanche led Western in rebounding a year ago. Fittingly, Mitchell said centers and forwards have been putting an extra emphasis on crashing the boards.
While there are a few new faces in the front court, Western's backcourt is arguably the best in Division II. It's effective rotation of Allen, senior Rico Wilkins and junior Richard Woodworth returns, and Allen said senior Cameron Severson's play has impressed.
Allen averaged 14.6 points and made a team-high 72 steals last season, Woodworth averaged 10.6 points and led the team in assists with 107 and Wilkins averaged 7.3 points and gave fits to just about every player he guarded.
Allen and Woodworth proved they can run the offense, score plenty and provide lockdown defense. Wilkins has the ability to get hot and gives the Vikings a defensive energy burst when he's on the floor.
"Well, we need some good leadership out of those guys," Dominguez said. "They are all talented and proved they can work together. I'm asking those guys to be leaders on the floor and to put the team above themselves. They are all gifted in different ways. Each one is so multitalented and can defend smaller and bigger players, shoot, rebound and handle the ball."
Returning veterans in key positions, talented newcomers, playing UW and Duke tough in the preseason and a 3-0 start have helped WWU build a heap of confidence.
Allen believes it's a trait that will only benefit the team moving forward. "I think it's definitely a positive," he said. "If I could compare it to last year, I remember all last summer and fall before the championship season we had talked about how we are going to win a national title. We had this unique confidence in us - individually and the team. I think we have similar things about this year's team. We are confident we can win and play with anyone. We're not here saying we're going to win it again but, deep down, we believe we can play with anyone at any level."
Confidence or not, Western knows every opponent will be looking to earn a win against the defending champions. Consequently, the Vikings know they'll be getting every team's best game.
Dominguez has made the cliché of taking one game at a time a focal point.
"We know we are going to get everybody's best game when they play us, especially when they come here and play," Mitchell said. "I mean, they're going to be really excited to play the defending national champions. If they knock us off, it's a huge win on their schedule. We know that everyone is coming in and giving us their best shot, so we need to take it one game at a time so we don't overlook anybody."
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