By John Bohnenkamp
There is a big hole in Western Illinois’ men’s basketball schedule.
The Leathernecks are in the middle of a nine-day, five-game stretch of games, finishing with Saturday’s game against Eastern Illinois. But after that, there is nothing on their schedule until the Jan. 2 Summit League opener against North Dakota State.
That’s a long time to go without games, especially for a team under a first-year coach with a reconstructed roster.
“This year is about getting as many games as you can,” said Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter after Sunday’s 79-73 loss to Central Michigan at Western Hall.
Jeter has a roster of 14 new players in his first year at Western Illinois, and he’s had to build the program during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has meant inconsistent schedules.
The Leathernecks were scheduled to open on Nov. 25 at DePaul, but the Blue Demons had to cancel because of COVID-19 protocols. That pushed their opener to last Thursday at Iowa.
Jeter knows his team could use practice time, but it’s also important to get game experience together.
“We understand your work’s got to get done in the league,” Jeter said. “It’s always that way. But I think for the mental health of my guys … I mean, they’ve been sitting around a long time. It’s only their second game. And pressure is building when they sit, sit, sit, sit. They want to play, want to play, want to play.
“No, no. We’re going to try to find games if we can do that. Try to get in as many as we can. I think that would benefit this group more than just being in practice right now. We’re getting a little banged up just attacking each other.”
Western Illinois forward Tamell Pearson, a transfer from UAB, recalled what it was like where there were no COVID-19 concerns. It’s been different this season.
“We’ve been distant from basketball for a long time,” he said.
“It’s really important for us (to play games),” said forward Rod Johnson, a transfer from Chattanooga. “That’s what we’re here for.”
The Leathernecks fell to 0-2 with Sunday’s loss, but they learned more from going against the Chippewas than maybe they did going against Iowa, the No. 3-ranked team in the nation.
Western Illinois built a 38-31 halftime lead, but Central Michigan roared back in the second half by attacking the basket, and finding little resistance. The Chippewas shot 61.8 percent in the second half.
“I think fatigue set in for our guys,” Jeter said. “We don’t have the defensive discipline yet to really just tighten up when we need to. When things are good, we can be good. When things get a little tight, and adversity sticks in, that’s when you see your habits.”
It was an improvement, Jeter and the players said, over the 99-58 loss to Iowa.
“I saw us getting to the free-throw line,” Jeter said. “I saw us sharing the basketball. I saw us do some things that were good. It was just down the stretch, when we had to make some plays, we were a little slower to the ball.”
“We picked up our intensity a lot,” Johnson said. “Especially in the first half there, we made a little run. Obviously we didn’t have that all of the way to the end.”
But little things matter for a team wanting to grow. The Leathernecks were 14-of-26 in free throws, including two lane violations. They also had 16 turnovers.
“If we clean it up, we’ll be fine,” Pearson said.
This, of course, isn’t unexpected, given the circumstances of this season.
“It’s going to be one of those types of years,” Jeter said. “You just don’t have enough time. With this group, we didn’t have a lot of time to practice together. OK, not an excuse, because everyone is in it. So you’re going to have some good moments and bad moments sometimes, just because we don’t have the time to really kind of set the standards and get those repetitions, so we have to do it in games.
“So we finally play (against Iowa). We get one practice in (on Saturday), (then) play Sunday. Same thing tomorrow. Take the day off, get on the bus, play. And that’s just how it’s going to be. So for us, a brand new team, it’s going to look good, and it’s going to look ugly.”
“The biggest piece of this is everyone staying together,” Johnson said.
There are some good things. Pearson had 22 points and nine rebounds in Sunday’s game, and has averaged 17 points in the first two games. Johnson has scored 26 points in the first two games. Guard Colton Sandage had 13 points, and Will Carius added 11.
“I think you can see some of the pieces that we have,” Jeter said. “Now we have to be willing to put it all together and put it on the line for each other. Once we do that, we’ll have a solid team, a nice team.
“Personnel-wise, I like the pieces. It’s just all got to fit together.”
It’s a puzzle that will only be put together on the court.
Photo: Western Illinois forward Will Carius (25) is congratulated by guard Colton Sandage after Carius made a 3-pointer during the second half of last Thursday’s game against Iowa. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)