By John Bohnenkamp
The first college basketball season under a new coach usually isn’t fun, especially a program that is rebuilding.
But those seasons can provide a foundation for what’s ahead.
I think back to Fran McCaffery’s first season at Iowa, an 11-20 year in 2010-11. That season included a 72-52 home win over Michigan State, and a 67-65 home victory over No. 6 Purdue to close the regular season.
A year later, the Hawkeyes were in the NIT. Two years later, they won 25 games and played in the NIT championship game. Three seasons later, they were in the NCAA Tournament.
I remember Jim Molinari’s first season as Western Illinois’ coach in 2008-09. The Leathernecks went 9-20 that season, 6-12 in the Summit League. A 71-66 loss to IUPUI on the final game of the regular season kept them from the conference tournament. There was a bitterness after that loss, and when Molinari was done with his post-game press conference, he said, “I’m going out to find some players.”
Two seasons later, the Leathernecks lost 13 consecutive games to end the season. A year after that, they won 18 games, and went to overtime in the conference tournament championship game, losing 52-50 to South Dakota State with a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. The following season, in 2012-13, Western Illinois won 22 games and shared the conference title.
Wins and losses during those seasons can be defining moments, something I thought about during Western Illinois’ 84-74 loss to South Dakota on Saturday night.
It was going to be a difficult rebuild for new coach Rob Jeter, one magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Leathernecks didn’t get together for full team workouts until just a few weeks before the season started. A search to find an identity was made even more difficult, and it’s still ongoing.
The Leathernecks have used seven different starting lineups this season, and have had a different starting lineup the past four games, looking for some sort of energy to start the game. Instead, they were down 42-20 at halftime and 61-24 with 14:08 to play.
Asked what the message was to the team at that point, associate head coach Chad Boudreau said, “Just keep playing. Anything can happen. With the shot clock and the 3-point arc, anything can happen.”
Western Illinois went on a 41-12 run, and most of that came with one particular lineup.
When junior guard Erik Talton entered the game with 8:50 to play, the Leathernecks were trailing 68-44. The lineup that was on the court at that point — Talton, Will Carius, Colton Sandage, Tamell Pearson and Cameron Burrell — went on a 27-13 run.
Down 73-65 with 2:47 to play, the Leathernecks had a chance to win a game that had gotten ugly and could have stayed ugly.
“Wheels came off the wagon, and we couldn’t recover,” Boudreau said. “I know there are no moral victories, but the guys that came in there late had a great run down the stretch. It gives us some depth.
“It’s good because of the positives.”
The first season is all about looking to the future. Talton, Sandage, Pearson and Burrell are all juniors.
It’s hard to tell where the Leathernecks are going to go in the coming seasons.
But first seasons provide wins and losses, and certain moments, that can define a future.
The decision by Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder not to take her team to Maryland for last Thursday’s game probably drew some criticism, especially when the threat of violence in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day didn’t materialize.
Bluder’s concerns were legitimate — the Maryland campus isn’t that far from the U.S. Capitol, which had been stormed by rioters a couple of weeks earlier — and even while Maryland officials were saying there was no threat to the safety, there was no guarantee something wouldn’t happen.
The Hawkeyes were going to be moved from one hotel because National Guard troops were staying there, and the hotel the team was going to be sent to also had members of the Guard there.
When news broke over the weekend that more than 150 Guard troops had tested positive for COVID-19 and were being quarantined at hotels in the D.C. area, it showed that Bluder’s concern was even more justified, considering that her staff and her players could have been exposed to the virus as well.
It is likely that the game will be rescheduled. It likely will complicate the Hawkeyes’ schedule, but for Bluder, that’s better than what could have happened.
FAREWELL, COL. ROCK
Western Illinois announced on Monday that Col. Rock III, the 10-year-old Bulldog who had been the Leathernecks’ mascot for eight years, died.
Rocky, as he was known, was Western Illinois’ first official four-legged mascot since the 1970s. He was a familiar, and popular, presence at WIU home athletic events.
One of the traditions was when he would get pets from the starters on the WIU women’s basketball team during pre-game introductions. And he was fond, perhaps too fond, of the popcorn that made its way under the seats at Western Hall.
Rocky’s owners were Joe and Ketra Roselieb, who work for the university. He officially retired in May, 2018.
“He was a part of the Roselieb family – and the Leatherneck family – for nearly 11 years,” Joe Roselieb said in a statement. “It has been an honor and privilege to care for Rocky. He was the perfect dog to bring the mascot program back to life, and it was truly a privilege and a joy being his person. Ketra and I will miss him so much, as will so many others.
“He was such a good boy.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Will Carius drives to the basket against Iowa’s Connor McCaffery in a game earlier this season. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)