Ask coach Tony Dominguez or just about anyone on the Western Washington University men's basketball roster how many starters or would-be starters the Vikings have.
The answer? A lot more than five.
Much of the success WWU has enjoyed going back to the start of last year boils down to sacrifice.
Whether it is Paul Jones - who hung 20 points on No. 1-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor earlier this season - embracing a sixth-man role last year, though he had the talent to start, or Rico Wilkins choosing to be the lock-down defender Western has needed him to be instead of displaying his tremendous offensive abilities, or senior Cameron Severson, who has paid his dues for three years to earn back the quality minutes he received as a freshman, many have sacrificed for the betterment of the whole.
It's a team mindset coach Brad Jackson helped instill during his tenure and one Dominguez is continuing. Last season, the Vikings gelled and players found roles best suited for team success. The result was a national title.
It's fitting then that Western added high-character players Anye Turner and Austin Bragg to fill voids left by departed seniors Rory Blanche, Zach Henifin and Dan Young.
"We had quite a few guys who wanted to be apart of our program coming out the wood work," Dominguez said in a phone interview. "The ones that were individual minded, we passed on. We got two guys (Bragg and Turner) who are extremely talented and want the team to do well."
The duo has helped the No. 5-ranked Vikings compile a 12-0 record and will try to help Western add another win during WWU's televised game on Root Sports against Central Washington University at 9:10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, at Carver Gym.
The two newcomers have seamlessly transitioned into a largely in tact defending national championship roster.
Bragg, a 6-foot-9 junior forward transfer from Clark Community College, where he averaged 15 points per game along with 10.2 rebounds, has started every game this year. He's averaging 8.3 points per outing and a team-high 6.8 rebounds.
"I was actually surprised how well the chemistry came together on the team," Bragg said in a phone interview. "It definitely seemed like we (Bragg and Turner) blended in quickly."
Although Bragg was looking at as many as 15 schools, he said the relationship he struck with Dominguez, combined with how welcoming players were on his visit and Western's style of play sold him on being a Viking. The national title didn't hurt either.
Turner, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward transfer from South Puget Sound Community College, where he averaged 15.3 points per game and a NWAACC-best 11.9 boards, gives the Vikings a solid rebounder and defensive spark off the bench. He's averaging 3.9 points per game, 3.3 rebounds and leads the team with 17 blocks.
"It's been quite the experience, and it's just been nice playing at such a high level and getting better everyday," Turner said in a phone interview. "We have so many talented players. I've never got to play against players like that on a daily basis."
Turner said he was looking to play at Saint Martin's before he got an offer from Western. Once he knew he'd have the chance to be a part of a winning program, he said the choice to attend Western was easy.
"Austin brings a lot of versatility, and he is gifted in the all areas," Dominguez said. "He's been a huge addition to our program. Anye is a little more defensive minded and very athletic. He's had some monster blocks for us and really creates havoc. We are just blessed to have both those guys."
Both Bragg and Turner went from being the guy at their junior colleges to simply one of the guys on Western's deep roster. Really it's an anomaly both have logged the minutes they have. Dominguez said there's usually a three-to-four month adjustment period to the Division II level for incoming players. Although both JC transfers are now among similar talent, they have embraced Western's style of team-first basketball.
"It's great," said Bragg of not having to be the go-to guy every night. "I know if I have an off-game, Anye or Chris (Mitchell) or Cam (Severson) can come in and have great games. It's nice when your having an off-game to having someone just as good coming off the bench."
While Bragg and Turner are two new pieces to Western's roster, Dominguez in leaning on the pair to carry on Western's team-first attitude once players such as John Allen, Chris Mitchell, Damien Fisher, Jones, Severson and Wilkins graduate at the end of the season.
"Austin and Anye are stepping into a long tradition of not just basketball success, but an overall basketball program that builds character."
Though Bragg and Turner realize Western's end goal of repeating as national champs needs to be taken in small steps, their hoping they've joined a program with a tradition of claiming national titles, as well.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
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