Whitens picks Western Michigan

Boys Basketball

North Central senior Jason Whitens, right, shares a laugh with Jets’ boys basketball coach Adam Mercier, left, on Friday in Powers. Whitens signed his letter of intent to play basketball at NCAA Division I Western Michigan University. (Adam Niemi/Iron Mountain Daily News)

POWERS – Jason Whitens’ dream is now reality.

The North Central basketball star signed his national letter of intent this week to play NCAA Division I basketball at Western Michigan University.

“I feel pretty great,” Whitens said. “Whenever you get to this moment after your high school career and you’re blessed enough to say you get to go to the next level and play for a program that fits you best, it doesn’t feel any better than this.

“We always talked about once you walk on that campus you feel like you belong there and it feels like home to you,” Whitens added. “Once I went to Western and met the coaches, it just fit everything that I believe in and I just felt like I belonged. I’m excited to start the next phase of my life there.”

North Central boys basketball coach Adam Mercier said it’s his understanding that Whitens joins Todd Lindeman as the only UP basketball players to receive Division I scholarships. Lindeman, a 7-foot-1 Channing native, played at Indiana in the early 1990s.

“It’s a rarefied air,” Mercier said. “So for North Central to produce a Division I athlete, that just shows you how much respect these Division I schools have for Jason Whitens. We knew he could play at that level, it was just a matter of him meeting these coaches and showing them who he is and who he’s going to be. I think Western Michigan loved what they’d seen. When they saw him in person, I think that’s when the rubber hit the road and it got moving pretty quick when Jason went down there for his official visit.”

Western Michigan head basketball coach Steve Hawkins said the decision to offer the basketball scholarship to Whitens came quick, despite having other potential recruits on his radar.

“We went back and thought about it as a coaching staff. We were taking all things into consideration when he headed out on the road. There were other kids we were also trying to evaluate and finding out where we would be at,” Hawkins told The Daily News. “That night, the more I thought about it, after talking with the assistant coaches, I had a lot to think about. I called him the next morning and told him I would offer the scholarship.

“He tried to play it cool. He tried to make it sound like ‘Well, I need to talk to my parents about it.’ I say that jokingly,” Hawkins said with a laugh. “He had to talk to his parents about it, which I understood. He told me he’d get back to me in a little bit of time. We had to get another player and there were other players we were recruiting. We explained to him that he was our first choice there with the scholarship that we offered him. We had to head out recruiting this weekend too, so we just needed to know where he was at with things. He called me back about five minutes later and said “Coach, I want to be a Bronco.”

Whitens’ decision came shortly after a whirlwind month of weighing scholarship options that ended this week with a 45-minute workout evaluation last Monday in Kalamazoo, in front of Western Michigan’s coaching staff. The next day, Whitens found himself back at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, where he helped the Jets to the last three consecutive Class D state titles, working out with vaunted Spartans forward Miles Bridges in front of Michigan State’s coaching staff.

The Spartans showed interest in Whitens with a preferred walk-on role. Whitens said he never felt close to committing to MSU, having an unsure role on the team and no scholarship to defray tuition and living expenses.

Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins knew hours after Whitens’ workout that he deserved the only remaining scholarship he had to offer.

After all, Hawkins said Whitens was in a tough situation. The Broncos usually evaluate multiple recruits in the same workout, meaning all eyes aren’t on one recruit at one time. But Whitens was the only basketball recruit on the floor, running drills against an assistant coach. Whitens said he was nervous.

“I was a little bit nervous. I’m a guy that doesn’t really get nervous much. Since this was really a place I could see myself, the workout meant a little bit more to me,” Whitens said. “(Hawkins) just said don’t worry about it, play how you play. I thought I didn’t shoot the ball very well but he just said, ‘We know you’re a competitor and we know what you can do.’ So that workout was just to see what I’m like on the court by myself and when I am struggling. I’m a perfectionist, I don’t worry about the little things, I just go out there and do my best.”

Hawkins said Whitens is not only talented, but has potential.

“Jason is a legitimate 6-5 on the wing and how he shoots it. He has a frame. He really has a frame that he can get a lot stronger with time in the weight room,” Hawkins said. “He can get more explosion than he already has. We looked at potential, not just this year but what he can turn into. We don’t take transfers – not that I have a problem with them – I just prefer to coach kids for 4 years. When we looked at Jason, I thought he’s somebody I want around for four years and that he has a high ceiling.”

With a recruiting trip planned for this weekend, Hawkins knew Whitens’ decision had to come quick. He called Whitens early Wednesday morning to offer the scholarship.

Whitens missed Hawkins’ call as he got ready for the school day. When Whitens returned the call, Hawkins wasted no time to make the offer.

“So I’m walking out of my house and I’m like ‘Hey, coach, what’s up?’ and the first words out of his mouth were ‘Jason, we’d like to offer you the scholarship.’ I was just blown away because I was just down there,” Whitens said. “It was a blessing for sure, that ride to school talking with him. It brought tears to my eyes to be honest. Getting to tell my family throughout the day. I went and surprised coach (Mercier) at school. There was a lot of tears that day, but they’re tears of joy. I’m very blessed.”

Hawkins said he expects Whitens to not only have regular playing time, but could find opportunities to contribute significantly to the team’s success. If the 45-minute workout was a sign of things to come, Hawkins is looking forward to Whitens’ time in a Broncos’ uniform.

“I fully expect him to be right in the mix for playing time no matter what,” Hawkins said. “We don’t recruit people that we think wouldn’t be in that mix. I would tell you the same thing about the other guys though, too.”

Hawkins said the disappointment Whitens had in his workout was a telling sign of his competitiveness.

“I love the self-criticism. I love the drive that he had in what amounted to be a high pressure situation with a scholarship on the line,” Hawkins said. “He was nervous about what he thought was a bad workout. And I thought it was a great workout.”

The Broncos finished last season 16-16 despite eight freshmen on the roster. They won nine of the last 10 regular season games. The Broncos lost to Ball State in the Mid-American Conference tournament quarterfinals.

Western Michigan graduated one senior, Tucker Haymond, opening the lone scholarship that Whitens took. Junior guard Thomas Wilder declared for the NBA draft but hasn’t hired an agent, which allows him to retain NCAA eligibility if he’s not drafted, meaning he could return to the Broncos next season. Hawkins said Wilder hasn’t appeared in any mock drafts, meaning it’s likelier than not that Wilder will return, adding to the Broncos’ experience.

“Last year we thought was going to be a rebuilding year with eight freshmen. They really, really came on strong at the end,” Hawkins said. “It’s a talented group and now everybody’s back. We only lost the one senior. We think Jason and the other two freshmen, those three will be walking into a situation where there’s high expectations. There will be a lot of players around them that can help them.”

Hawkins said he had known of Whitens for the past couple years. But getting to the UP to evaluate Whitens was tricky for a number of reasons.

“The one thing that is difficult about the UP is just getting up there in the middle of winter to evaluate him. We play every Tuesday, Saturday,” Hawkins said. “To get an assistant coach up there on a recruiting trip when we’re playing games, that’s the hard thing to be able to get up there. If we did get up there, who were we going to watch them against? Because they were beating teams so badly.”

Mercier said the moment Whitens shared the news of his scholarship offer was one of the best he’s had as a coach.

“It’s one of the prouder moments I’ve ever had as a coach for Jason to finally be accepted by a university to play basketball there. I think that’s quite the experience,” Mercier said. “We shared a great moment. I can’t even put it in words when he told me. It was quite an emotional moment but one that a lot of pride as well. Laughing and crying and snotting all over the place at the same time. It was just one of those moments, because we both know what he’s been through this last year, let alone this month. It had to be so rewarding for him to hear those words from the coach that they wanted him to sign there, and a place that he truly wanted to go.”