LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
Western Michigan is in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time in a decade.
A pair of fifth-year seniors — one with a possible future in the NBA, one who coaches didn’t expect to be playing anymore — have helped the Broncos play with the best in college basketball.
Western Michigan is seeded 14th and will play third-seeded Syracuse on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.
“I’ve never seen our guys bothered by a crowd,” Broncos coach Steve Hawkins said. “Syracuse may bother us because of how good they are, but I don’t think the setting will be too much for us.”
Syracuse’s scouting report will likely focus on Shayne Whittington and David Brown.
Whittington, a 6-foot-11 center from Paw Paw, Mich., will get a chance to show the nation what about half of NBA teams have seen in person.
Brown, meanwhile, is just glad anyone gets to see him play. He has had surgeries to repair torn knee and ankle ligaments, which led to doubts about his future after his season-ending knee injury early in the 2011-12 season.
“I thought my career was over and I was done forever,” Brown recalled in a telephone interview Tuesday. “As soon as they said there was a chance I could play, I dedicated myself to coming back.”
Brown, who is from Roscoe, Ill., bounced back well enough to be the Mid-American Conference Sixth Man of the Year last season and to average a team-high 19.4 points this season. He was named MVP of the MAC tournament after scoring a career-high 32 points — making five 3-pointers — in the final against Toledo.
Whittington averaged 19 points and 13 rebounds over two games, earning a spot on the all-tournament team. He averaged 16.3 points, with an inside-out game, and 9.1 rebounds during the regular season.
“What NBA scouts have told us is, he could be a ‘Stretch 4,’ in the league because he can really shoot and he’s athletic for his size,” Hawkins said. “We’re glad to have him and I’ll never forget that he committed to us, calling from his cellphone from the parking lot right after we offered him a scholarship.”
Brown potentially could extend his scholarship for a sixth season next year because of injury-shorted seasons, but he’s trying not to think about that option right now.
“I am probably eligible for it, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m just going to focus on what we’re trying to do against Syracuse.”
Western Michigan has won two NCAA tournament games, one in 1998 against Clemson and in 1976 against Virginia Tech, in three previous chances.
Win No. 3 in the NCAA tournament will not be easy, playing a talented team in what will essentially be a road game, but Orange coach Jim Boeheim insisted his team won’t take the Broncos lightly.
“Anybody you play in this tournament now, you’re going to have a tough game,” Boeheim said. “There’s no such thing as an easy starting game in the NCAA tournament anymore.”
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