By John Bohnenkamp
His team, with an almost entirely new roster, never got an offseason education.
Rob Jeter’s first season as Western Illinois’ men’s basketball coach came during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant a team full of new players had to learn in the crucible of an unpredictable season.
That season came to an end in Saturday’s Summit League tournament quarterfinals, an 86-69 loss to South Dakota.
Western Illinois finished with a 7-15 record, closing with a three-game losing streak after a five-game winning streak.
“The last three games are going to leave a bad taste in our mouth,” Jeter said. “It was a thud. We crashed hard.”
The Leathernecks had just one returning player from last season, and then couldn’t have offseason workouts because of restrictions related to the pandemic. So Jeter was teaching a team while also trying to figure out how to win games.
“This group, we’ve asked a lot of them,” Jeter said.
The Leathernecks lost seven consecutive games to open Summit League play, then went on a five-game winning streak.
But they closed the season by giving up an average of 88.7 points in last weekend’s losses at Oral Roberts and this game.
The reasons, Jeter said, were simple.
“Our inability to get stops, and our inside game disappeared,” Jeter said.
Western Illinois made just 7-of-27 3-pointers against the Coyotes and got 26 points in the paint. South Dakota shot 55.8 percent from the field for the game.
“We lived and died by the three,” Jeter said. “That’s not my DNA. That’s not what I’m about. Defensively, we have to roll our sleeves up, and we’ve got to get more disciplined, we have to get more tougher, nastier and grittier. And I think that was proven to us once we started playing the top level.
“To beat that upper half (of the conference), you have to have balance. It’s amazing — when the ball goes in, guys play better defense. I don’t know why. I think it should be the opposite. You should be able to guard no matter what. If the ball’s not going in, you should be a little edgier on the other end.”
“Like Coach said, we were living and dying by the three,” said forward Will Carius, who played all 40 minutes and finished with 12 points. “For a couple of games there, they were going in. It was great, fantastic, all that. But when you don’t have that consistency, inside and outside, it’s hard to compete when the threes aren’t falling.”
“We got good looks,” said guard Colton Sandage, who led the Leathernecks with 16 points. “We just couldn’t get a lot of layups to fall.”
South Dakota, the second seed in the tournament, took an early 14-3 lead and maintained control even when the Leathernecks would make runs.
“Tonight, we scored enough points to win a college basketball game,” Jeter said. “But we gave up way too many, so the consistency starts on the defensive end. We’ve got to get back to the old grind.”
Jeter should have most of the roster back next season — Carius, who has played at the Division I, II, and III levels, said he hasn’t decided if he will return for a sixth season — and expects to have a normal offseason.
“I think we did make a big jump,” Sandage said. “We’ve got a lot to build on this summer.”
“I feel good about where we are as a family,” Jeter said. “We just have to add a few more pieces, and get a few more guys a little more comfortable in our system.
“We’ve grown up. We’re going to do a lot more growing over the summer. And we’ll be better for next year.”
Photo: WIU’s Will Carius and Colton Sandage react during a game against Iowa to open the season. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)