By John Bohnenkamp
Rob Jeter laughed at the question.
Jeter is heading into his first season as Western Illinois University’s men’s basketball coach having spent the spring and summer trying to build a new program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, when Jeter was asked if his team was ready to finally get a game in, he chuckled at the thought.
“Who knows?” he said.
This came a couple of days before the Leathernecks found out that their season opener on Wednesday against DePaul was postponed because of positive COVID-19 tests within the Blue Demons’ program.
The schedule on WIU’s website lists a Dec. 3 game at Iowa, and then the Summit League schedule that starts in January — and even that looks different than normal, with games this year being played on back-to-back days against the same team at the same place instead of the normal home-and-home schedule.
Usually a new coach coming in signs some players in the spring, then has the summer and fall to get them ready for the season.
But the Leathernecks didn’t have summer workouts because of the pandemic, and then had fall workouts in separate groups to start out.
“The toughest part about it is you haven’t had the summer or fall, right?” Jeter said. “Brand new team. This team didn’t get together as one group until a month ago. So for about a month, we’ve been practicing. It’s coming together.
“But who knows, man? It’s a weird time.”
The workouts, Jeter said, had a different feel.
“The mindset was, ‘OK, we’re getting ready. But will we have a season?” Jeter said. “And that’s just as coaches. I can only imagine what it was like as a player. Because in the early part of those workouts, the NCAA hadn’t decided on an extra year of eligibility. So you had guys working out, and who knows where their minds were? ‘Am I going to play? Am I not going to play?’ So basically your workouts were like what you would do at the end of the season, where you’re just like, let’s keep the guys in shape, make sure we’re improving, but we really don’t have a game in front of us.
“It was just maintenance work, that’s what it seemed like. It was just kind of the vibe. As we get closer, the sense of urgency kicks in.”
Finding games, too, has been an issue. The Leathernecks usually play up to three “guarantee” games against major programs, but that money was uncertain, given that few, if any fans, will be in the arenas.
“That’s been a roller coaster,” Jeter said. “When I took the job in April, everybody was trying to get their schedule done. COVID hits, and now you’re trying to get those guarantee games, and they just weren’t there, because of the COVID concerns. Then we got through that period, you get into the fall, your schedules aren’t done, but now the money starts to come back. Then they changed the start date (of the season), so it disrupted the scheduling again, because all of those games before (the new start date), those games are out. Now you have to reshuffle, realign.
We were one of those teams where we had a lot of games to fill. Then, with COVID restrictions, now we have to bus, now we have to get local games. It’s been one obstacle you have to navigate around.”
At some point, the Leathernecks will play. It’s almost an entirely new roster compared to last year, when Western Illinois went 5-21, 2-14 in the Summit League.
Western Illinois’ roster is a mix of graduate transfers, junior-college players, and true freshman. Senior Anthony Jones, who played 24 games last season, is the only returning player with significant game experience.
Jeter’s goal was trying to find players who either played together, or knew each other in some way. For example, three players — forwards Adam Anhold and Cameron Burrell, along with guard J.J. Flores — played at Highland (Ill.) Community College.
Jeter will go into the season leaning on his veterans, especially graduate transfers Rod Johnson and Will Carius.
Johnson. Johnson transferred from Chattanooga, while Carius has played at the Division II and III levels.
“I call them my ‘old-timers,’ my ‘old guys,’” Jeter laughed. “Their presence is just different. And I try to lean on those guys a lot. And that’s how a program should be.”
Forward Tamell Pearson, a transfer from UAB, is part of a six-player junior class. The Leathernecks also have five freshmen.
His team, Jeter said, could use a game.
“Normally you have a couple of scrimmages, or an exhibition game,” he said. “And our team, more than any, needs that. Can we just play a couple of games next week? Just to play. Just to keep us dialed in.”
At some point, the Leathernecks will play. But when?
Well, who knows?
Jeter knows one thing.
“I’ve got a bunch of guys who are excited to be here,” he said. “They understand the challenge, they understand what we’re trying to do. And that’s what I like — they’re excited about the challenge.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Cam Burrell shoots during a recent practice at Western Hall. (Photo courtesy of Western Illinois Athletics)