By John Bohnenkamp
Rob Jeter said he wanted his team to be “planted, not buried.”
It’s been a challenging season for Jeter in his first year as Western Illinois’ men’s basketball coach. He had to reconstruct a roster in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lack of practice time in the summer and the limits on fall workouts made rebuilding a slow process. The Leathernecks lost 12 of their first 14 games, and Jeter was especially worried after the last loss in that stretch, an 83-81 loss at North Dakota in which Western Illinois was up 73-59 with 6:58 to play, then was outscored 24-8 to end the game.
Since then, Western Illinois has won five consecutive games. And after a weekend sweep of Denver at Western Hall, the Leathernecks have secured a spot in the Summit League tournament.
Planted. Not buried.
“When we were going through all of that losing early, we were trying to make sure we weren’t buried, so that we could keep trying to blossom into something,” Jeter said after Saturday’s 82-75 win. “That first game at North Dakota was tough. It was really tough on us. I was really afraid that we weren’t going to have anything left emotionally. It’s a tough year emotionally anyway with COVID, all of the isolation, all the missed family time, just being regular college students. And I was really concerned. But we’ve shown that fight and that Leatherneck toughness, that we weren’t going to be buried, we were just planted. It’s really good to see these guys blossom into something like this.”
“There’s a lot of positivity, for sure,” said senior forward Will Carius, who has averaged 22 points per game in the streak and 15.7 points this season. “I know we had some frustrating moments early on. But it’s great to get on this streak.”
It’s the longest winning streak for the program since the 2015-16 team opened the season with five consecutive wins.
The Summit League schedule this season was stacked against Western Illinois at the beginning. The Leathernecks were swept by North Dakota State and South Dakota State to open conference play, then after a two-game series with UMKC was canceled because of COVID-19 issues with the Roos, Western Illinois was swept in a home series against South Dakota. All three of those teams are at the top of the conference standings heading into the final two weeks of the season.
The North Dakota loss could have been devastating. But the Leathernecks won 99-87 in a game that featured 16 lead changes and 13 ties.
“It was very frustrating,” said forward Cameron Burrell. “We got down on ourselves a little bit. But at the end of the day, we all stuck together and knew what we needed to do to get better as a team. Once we started coming together collectively, things started to get better for us.”
The Leathernecks are starting to understand their roles. With the lack of practice time, along with injuries, Jeter’s rotation was a constant movement of pieces. Ten players have started at least one game this season, with only Carius and Tamell Pearson having started every game.
The Leathernecks have had the same starting lineup during their winning streak — Carius, Burrell, Pearson, Colton Sandage and Ramean Hinton.
“Our guys are really starting to buy in,” Jeter said. “We’ve moved from the teaching phase to the coaching phase, just tweaking some things.”
“Coach Jeter has made that an emphasis — guys knowing their roles, going in and out of games,” Burrell said. “Knowing what you have to do. I think everybody’s getting the hang of that.”
Burrell has become the team’s stopper. He is averaging 11.4 rebounds during the winning streak.
“He’s been huge,” Jeter said. “I’ve been asking him to do a lot. I’m asking him to guard the other team’s best player, and I’m asking him to do it without a lot of help — just stay with his guy, and get a lot of rebounds. So he’s really stepping up and doing everything that we ask.”
“He’s been big-time through this whole streak,” Carius said. “Very consistent on the glass, very consistent on defense. And even offensively, he’s asserting himself a lot.”
The Leathernecks don’t play this weekend, and won’t play until the Feb. 27-28 series at Oral Roberts to close the regular season.
Jeter would like to be playing.
“Whatever’s been thrown at us, we’ve just taken it in stride,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to do the same thing right now.”
“I don’t know. I’m torn,” Carius said. “I love playing games, but at the same time it will be great to have a little time to rest our bodies. I think we’ll be able to keep that momentum throughout.”
Jeter plans on sticking with the same schedule, to keep the Leathernecks in a routine.
“Days off? They’ve had plenty of days off in the summer,” Jeter said, laughing. “I think these guys are ready to get after it and get in the gym.”
But Jeter said there could be some time to rest as well.
“It’s going to allow some guys to get back in the gym to get some shots up,” he said. “It’s going to allow us to regroup, mentally and physically, and then get ready for that push in the tournament.
“They’ve earned it, they deserve it.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Will Carius shoots in the season opener against Iowa. Carius is the Leathernecks’ leading scorer at 15.7 points per game this season. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)