Not long ago, there were at least half a dozen unheralded teams around the country sporting unbeaten records. Schools such as Wake Forest, which got off to a 10-0 start, the University of New Orleans (9-0), Minnesota (8-0), LSU (7-0) and Iowa (10-0) all eventually hit snags on the road, embarked on rugged league schedules or met somebody really tough, and had their winning streaks broken. Meanwhile, Western Michigan, the darkest horse among those early-season surprisers, has become a solid late-season success story. After Mid-American Conference victories over Miami of Ohio (82-68) and Ohio U. (75-59) last week, the Broncos were galloping along with a 16-0 record.
Western Michigan 16-0? Can that be true? Indeed it is, although most people outside Kalamazoo, Mich. do not seem to know it. Among them are the voters in the wire-service polls, who have ignored the Mid-American leaders in the weekly rankings.
Western's chances for national recognition have been hurt by an out-of-league schedule that was no bed of nails; the Broncos played five small-college opponents and barely escaped with their hides against undistinguished teams from Wisconsin-Parkside (77-74) and Wisconsin-Green Bay (51-50). But they also scored 10-point wins over two tough major-college rivals, Detroit and Michigan State. Those intrastate victories made the Broncos more popular in Kalamazoo than a snowmobile equipped with a citizen's band radio.
Located midway between Chicago and Detroit, Western's campus startles many visitors because of its Big Ten size. The university's enrollment is nearly 20,000, and many of the students are intense basketball fans, which is fortunate since the almost 26 inches of snow that fell last month prevented them from wandering much farther than Read Fieldhouse.
A record crowd of 10,519 fans showed up there one frigid evening last week to see the crucial game against Miami. The Redskins brought a solid record of their own to Kalamazoo—a 6-0 league mark that placed them in a tie with the Broncos for the Mid-American lead. But once the game was under way, there was no question which was the better team. Western looked so impressive that Radio Announcer Larry Osterman, who also does the Detroit Tigers' games on television, said, "This is the first time that I have felt that Western Michigan could successfully compete in a market area saturated by the Tigers, Lions football and college powerhouses at Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame. All of them are within 130 miles of Kalamazoo."
Osterman's statement reflects a dramatic change for a school with little basketball tradition and for a team that finished fifth in the Mid-American last season with an 8-6 record. Coach Eldon Miller's senior-dominated lineup has improved steadily during the past three years, winning eight games when the current seniors were freshmen, 13 when they were sophomores, then 16 last season for the school's highest victory total since 1952.
That many victories in a row this year has made Miller's reluctant smile a little broader, and he richly deserves all the happiness he can savor. His predecessor at Western Michigan was forced out by a 6-17 record and a series of ugly racial demonstrations. As a result, Miller's first team in 1970-71 was a hodgepodge of players, most of whom he had not recruited. Still, he won 14 games. In the five years since, the Broncos have become a well-oiled machine. They win because they have no star, a circumstance which so frustrates their opposition that at times Western's foes have resorted to playing a box-and-one defense with the chaser on point Guard Jim Kurzen, the Broncos' sixth-leading scorer with 7.8 points a game.
Against Miami, 6'8" Center Tom Cutter, one of five Western players averaging in double figures, performed flawlessly. He hit all eight of his shots from the field, hauled down 11 rebounds and scored 20 points. Paul Griffin, a 6'9" forward, blocked six shots and handed out six assists—most of them to Cutter—in 25 minutes. Griffin and Cutter are handsome blond look-alikes who often are mistaken for one another on campus. Jeff Tyson, at the other forward, is the Broncos' leading scorer, with a 16.6 average, and is as crafty as one would expect a lefty with a mustache to be. Guard Jimmie Harvey, a three-year .397 shooter, is suddenly hitting at a .500 clip, and Kurzen, a B+ student in earth science, is as steady as bedrock.
The only unpredictable element in Western's pass-and-cut offense is freshman Guard Marty Murray, who seems to come off the bench just when all the picking and backdoor plays are getting a bit monotonous. A wide-bottomed 5'10" hustler from Chicago, Murray plays as if he were 6'5". He thinks nothing of backing a taller defender in close to the basket, blocking shots by bigger players from behind or sneaking in for layups off the offensive board. Murray even shoots technical fouls for the Broncos.
But what about the polls, don't they bother Western Michigan? "Not much," says Kurzen. "When we toured Europe last summer several scheduled games fell through, and we had to spend 10 days on a mountaintop in San Marino, one of the smallest countries in the world. I guess that got us accustomed to being left in obscurity."