What's better than one national title? Two.
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. Forwards Rory Blanche and Zach Henifin, who combined averaged 26.5 points and hauled in 12.7 rebounds per game, won't be easy to replace, either.
However, new head coach Tony Dominguez, who acted as 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."
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
WWU'S WEEKEND TOURNAMENTS
LYNDA GOODRICH WOMEN'S CLASSIC
FRIDAY, NOV. 23
Saint Martin's vs. Evergreen, noon
Carroll at WWU, 5 p.m.
SATURDAY, NOV. 24
Saint Martin's vs. Carroll, noon
Evergreen at WWU, 7:30 p.m.
NOTE: All games at Sam Carver Gymnasium
CHUCK RANDALL MEN'S CLASSIC
FRIDAY, NOV. 23
Alaska Fairbanks vs. Southwest Baptist, 2:30 p.m.
Concordia-St. Paul at WWU, 7:30 p.m.
SATURDAY, NOV. 24
Alaska Fairbanks vs. Concordia-St. Paul, 3 p.m.
Southwest Baptist at WWU, 5 p.m.
NOTE: All games at Sam Carver Gymnasium
2012-13 WWU KEYS TO SUCCESS
1. Getting greedy: The Vikings won a national title last year, but it's a new year and WWU can't settle with last year's results. Western has to find a way to stay motivated every night if it wants to successfully defend its title. "I think it starts every day with the guys in the gym wanting to get better," John Allen said. "That leads to the team wanting to get better every day and just wanting success throughout the program."
2. Defense, defense, defense: Western has the offense to score with any team in Division II. What carried the Vikings last year was their suffocating defense led by players such as Rico Wilkins and Zach Henifin. "Our defense is our main focus," Chris Mitchell said. "We know we can beat anybody on our schedule, but it starts with our defense."
3. Trust: Luckily, Western returns the majority of its core roster, but with new players such as Anye Turner and Austin Bragg in key roles, it's imperative the whole team can come together, especially by postseason time. "I think the biggest thing is that we have trust in each other," John Allen said. "Late in the season last year, what kind of got us over the hump is that guys started trusting each other. I think we're doing that right now, but that can always improve."
2012-13 WWU PLAYERS TO WATCH
6-1, Sr. Guard
Voted preseason GNAC Player of the Year, Allen has developed into an all-round guard who can do it all and take over games when needed. He averaged 14.6 points per game last year and keyed WWU's national championship run. Combined with Richard Woodworth and Rico Wilkins, Western's backcourt will give teams fits all season.
6-4, Sr. Forward
Coach Tony Dominguez said Jones, a sixth-man star last year, was worthy of a starting spot if WWU had enough room. Jones' gets the chance this year and will be called upon to replace Zach Henifin. Jones is a pure athlete with the ability to score in a multitude of ways. He averaged 7.9 points and 4.4 rebounds last season and has the opportunity to become a breakout star as a senior
6-9, Jr. Forward
Entering the year, question marks existed in the front court with the loss of Rory Blanche and Dan Young. Tony Dominguez said Chris Mitchell has elevated his game to a new level this year, and new JC transfer Austin Bragg will complement the Everson native well. Bragg is slated to start immediately and has the skills to put up strong numbers.
2012-13 WWU MEN'S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Result
Nov, 9 Multnomah W 100-44
Nov. 12 at BYU Hawaii W 84-78
Nov. 14 at Chaminade W 93-83
Date Opponent Time
Dec. 1 at Simon Fraser* 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 8 Quest B.C. 3 p.m.
Dec. 30 Thompson River B.C. 3 p.m.
Jan 3 at Seattle Pacific * 7 p.m.
Jan 5 at Montana State Billings * 7 p.m.
Jan. 10 Central Washington * 7 p.m.
Jan. 12 Northwest Nazarene * 7 p.m.
Jan. 17 at Western Oregon * 7 p.m.
Jan. 19 at Saint Martin's * 7 p.m.
Jan. 24 Alaska Anchorage * 7 p.m.
Jan. 26 Alaska Fairbanks * 7 p.m.
Jan. 31 Montana State Billings * 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 2 Seattle Pacific * 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 7 at Northwest Nazarene * 6 p.m.
Feb. 9 at Central Washington * 7 p.m.
Feb. 14 Saint Martin's * 7 p.m.
Feb. 16 Western Oregon * 7 p.m.
Feb. 21 at Alaska Fairbanks * 8:30 p.m.
Feb. 23 at Alaska Anchorage * 8:30 p.m.
March 2 Simon Fraser * 1 p.m.
2012-13 WWU MEN'S BASKETBALL
No. Player Pos. Hgt. Wgt. Yr. Hometown
22 Dana Abe F 6-4 190 Fr. Seattle
20 John Allen G 6-1 190 Sr. Brier
44 Austin Bragg F 6-9 205 Jr. Longview
1 Alfred Davis G 6-0 195 Jr. Tacoma
5 Aaron Dunn F 6-6 235 So. Spokane
40 Damien Fisher F 6-7 235 Sr. Fife
11 Paul Jones F 6-4 195 Sr. Kent
12 Jimmy Keum G 6-0 165 Fr. Renton
42 Chris Mitchell C 6-9 225 Sr. Everson
23 Robert Oliver F 6-4 200 So. Federal Way
35 Jeffrey Parker F 6-6 195 Fr. Richmond, Calif.
4 Joey Schreiber F 6-7 200 Fr. Renton
13 Cameron Severson G 6-5 185 Sr. Petersburg, Alaska
2 Dane Thorpe G 6-3 195 Jr. Bellingham
10 Anye Turner F 6-7 185 So. Tumwater
3 Rico Wilkins G 6-0 175 Sr. Dallas, Texas
14 Richard Woodworth G 6-3 185 Jr. Bellevue
2011-12 WWU MEN'S LEADERS
Player G Pts. Avg.
Rory Blanche 36 571 15.9
John Allen* 36 526 14.6
Richard Woodworth* 36 382 10.6
Zach Henifin 36 382 10.6
FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE
Player FGM FGA Pct.
Rory Blanche 244 410 .595
Cameron Severson* 16 27 .593
Richard Woodworth* 130 264 .492
Player 3PM 3PA Pct.
Rory Blanche 6 11 .545
Richard Woodworth* 38 84 .452
Chris Mitchell* 39 91 .429
FREE THROW PERCENTAGE
Player FTM FTA Pct.
John Allen* 94 105 .895
Paul Jones* 61 75 .813
Richard Woodworth* 84 110 .764
Player G Reb. Avg.
Rory Blanche 36 249 6.9
Zach Henifin 36 210 5.8
Richard Woodworth* 36 161 4.5
Player G Ast. Avg.
Richard Woodworth* 36 107 3.0
John Allen* 36 101 2.8
Zach Henifin 36 77 2.1
Player G Stl. Avg.
John Allen* 36 72 2.0
Zach Henifin 36 63 1.8
Richard Woodworth* 36 42 1.2
Player G Blk. Avg.
Dan Young 34 37 1.1
Zach Henifin 36 27 0.8
Chris Mitchell* 6 20 0.6
2012-13 GNAC COACHES POLL 2011-12
2011-12 record Pts
1. Seattle Pacific (8) 23-8 97
2. Western Washington (2) 31-5 90
3. Central Washington 15-13 79
4. Alaska Anchorage 23-7 70
5. Montana State Billings 18-12 49
6. Western Oregon 18-10 41
7. Northwest Nazarene 12-14 34
8. Alaska Fairbanks 5-23 31
9. Saint Martin's 10-17 31
10. Simon Fraser 8-18 28
NOTE: First-place votes in parenthesis. Points awarded on 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.